-- detail from Luca Signorelli's "Adoration of the Shepherds"
(1496, National Gallery, London)
A weary journey one winter's night
No hope of shelter, no rest in sight
Who was the creature that bore Mary?
A simple donkey
And when they came into Bethl'hem town
They found a stable to lay them down
For their companions that Christmas night
An ox and an ass
-- Carol of the Wildwood
Every animal on this planet is a beast of human burden. The reason why the animals spoke at Christmas dawn is the same for why the angels sang:
Peace on Earth, for there is Good Will, finally, in man: the revelation, finally, of the sons of God.
In the oldest icons of the Nativity are two characters in the cave that stand close to the Newborn Christ and the Mother of God. These characters are not human: they are a donkey and an ox, looking with deep adoration at the Baby in the crib.
Their names were Shor and Khamor. This is their story.
Shor rested in his shelter from a long day’s work. He had pulled with his massive shoulders a heavy cart for hours on end.
He was built for it. He was an ox, after all. A gelded bull meant for hauling, Shor now weighed a tremendous two thousand pounds. He ate a lot. Indeed, he was eating right now in the little cave he called home. His master had to provide him with a lot of grain and straw, but it was worth it.
The master depended on Shor’s super-strength to move tons of freight every day. And in the spring, it was Shor who pulled the plough through the dry, concrete soil. The ploughshare itself was nothing more than a single large iron blade. Shor pulled hard and his master guided the plough, from sunup to sundown.
Never did he complain. Always he complied.
Never did he veer off course, because Shor, with his huge eyes, sure could see straight.
He knew his owner, his master, and that was enough.
He was an ox, after all. He was made to see the way, and to deeply know.
He was munching on a sheaf of straw when they came in.
His master, in the dark of night led in a donkey and an old man. His two sons, young men, stayed outside.
And on the donkey there was a young woman, great with child.
Shor knew that this night, Someone New would come into the world.
Khamor was the donkey, and he too was made for bearing burdens.
But this night was no hard burden: it was, so to speak, very light.
His master was an old carpenter whose woodworking years were mostly now behind him. But still, Khamor carried the wood for Joseph, listening, with his big ears, for the old man’s kindly voice calling his name.
He carried lots of things. Finished boxes and cart-wheels. Doors and lintels. Grain and grapes, figs and dates for his master’s family, the sons and daughters and the grandchildren of Joseph and his wife Salome, who had passed years ago.
But now, on his back, there was a young woman, barely old enough to be called a woman, Khamor remembered when Joseph led him to the Temple, and the moment when this beautiful girl climbed onto his back like gossamer, so light she was.
Khamor followed his master home, carrying this young woman who would join the household, living under the protection of Joseph.
He loved the melodious voice of this lady whom he carried. Her words were like light even in dark places, when all other lights would go out.
And now he understood.
As he bore this beautiful young woman, she herself bore a child about to be born: a Child of light, at once her child and the Son of God.
How she sang. His long ears savored every word.
He was a donkey, after all. He was made to hear, and to understand.
He carried, into the Cave, the Lady great with Child, and met with Shor the ox.
They stood and waited, in a quiet that was as silent as the sixth day of Creation, on the very first Friday, when the Maker and the Master, with His two hands, said not a word in silence when He fashioned out of clay Adam, the man.
It was that same quiet, and it was that same godly peace.
And in the still of this holy night, attended by an ox and a donkey, there filled the dark of the cave a vast and transfiguring light, brighter than the white, that would drive off every shadow, flood every corner, open the earth back up to the infinite sky.
Shor and Khamor, unbeknownst to their owners and masters, had been long waiting for this moment of Dayspring, the Something New, this very Child of the Light, the original Owner and Master.
All animals for all time had been waiting.
After all, as their friend, the Prophet Isaiah, had once said: “The ox knows his Owner, and the ass understands his Master’s crib” (Isaiah 1.3).
The ox was made to see and know. The donkey, to hear and understand.
Another friend, the Prophet Habbakuk, had foreseen the presence of Shor and Khamor:
“O Lord, I have heard Your report, and was afraid: I considered Your works and was amazed: in the midst of two living beings You shalt be known” (Habbakuk 3.2 LXX).
So in the next few days, Shor and Khamor went back into the human world that was still full of shadow. They and the animals could see their true Owner and know enough to adore Him. They could hear His Voice, and understand that their Master was a Child born in their stable world, in the cave of the earth.
What a surprise this was, that this God-man Infant would enter, uncelebrated, the world with an ox and ass as His friends. Ne v carskoj palat’i, no mezdu bydl’ati, vo pustyni, vo jaslini a treba vsim znati,* after all.
Shor went back to his straight paths amongst the fields: in his world, at least, the swords had been beaten into ploughshares. Khamor carried his beautiful lady and her Child into dark exile in Egypt, as political refugees.
Years later, a cousin of Khamor would carry that same Child into the City of the Temple, where He would enter into a much darker exile.
Once again, the animals and all creation would suffer, but not for long.
Only three days.
After all, “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it” (John 1.5).
In the most ancient sermon we have on the famous donkey and the ox, Origen Adamantius drew this conclusion in his sermon in the year AD 238, preached in Caesarea Maritima in Palestine:
“Having seen and understood this manger, let us strive to know the Lord, and become worthy of the knowledge of Him, and to receive His birth, the resurrection of His flesh, and also His glorious return in majesty; to Him be glory and dominion unto all ages. Amen.”
-- Origen, Thirteenth Homily on the Gospel of St Luke
It seems that Shor and Khamor did so much better than most humans. As Isaiah said, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib, while Israel does not know, My people does not understand.”
So we shall open our eyes on Christmas Day, and know something at least as well as the Ox. Open our ears at least as well as the Donkey, if we have ears to hear, and understand.
God is with us, S’nami Boh, and all His creation.
And with the donkey and the ox.
*”Not in a rich palace but among the lowly, let all know that, in a manger God came as a stranger.”