Ox and ass before him bow
Recently, I read about the primatologist, Jane Goodall, observing chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. One day, Goodall writes, she observed two chimpanzees meeting each other in the early evening, apparently after they had not seen each other for some time. The two chimpanzees tenderly and joyfully clasped each other’s hands and then proceeded to climb together to a nearby ridge, where they sat side by side. Then silently, and leaning next to each other, the two watched in perfect stillness as the sun set below the distant horizon.
It is a beloved part of the Christmas tradition that the animals know something that we human beings do not on this holy night. It was all foretold by the prophet Isaiah, that the ox and the donkey would knowingly receive the creator of heaven and earth in the nearby manger, but that the people would not comprehend.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1:3)
The beautiful anthem that our choir sings during the 11:00 service on Christmas Eve, “O Magnum Mysterium,” tells of this great mystery. Appropriately, this is sung right around midnight, as people are coming to the altar for Communion and thus are enveloped by transfiguring beauty. If you are able to give yourself to such music, you may well find yourself in that place of self-forgetful knowing that is beyond words. We have the same ability to know what the animals know, but too often we are simply too distracted by our anxieties and our egos. Ox and ass before him bow, but we are checking Facebook now.
What we need, of course, is a kind of release from all that keeps us from our deeper life in God. And in that spirit, we hope your worship this Christmas allows you to surrender yourself a bit more to God and your true life, so that all that has been worrying you can fall away, and the One who has been sustaining you, all your life, can fill you and hold you in thrall. We hope that you will know the mystery of the manger, that the peace of God has always been with you and will never leave you.