The ox and the donkey sit beside the manger in this nativity scene.
The ox and the donkey sit beside the manger in this nativity scene.

The ox and the donkey, or "ass" in most references, is found throughout religious sources, from Biblical texts to holiday carols, as well as in religious artwork. Various commentaries have been written about the symbolism behind these two animals, as well as the significance of their coupling, but the underlying theme that emerges is one of unification.

Carols

The ox and the donkey appear frequently in the religious texts and songs of both Christianity and Judaism. For example, the hymn "In Good Christian Men Rejoice" mentions “ox and ass before him bow,” while the hymn "What Child Is This" questions “why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding.” In "The Little Drummer Boy," carolers declare that “Mary nodded and the ox and ass kept time.” In Judaism, there's a Biblical commandment not to yoke an ox and a donkey together.

Biblical Passages

A declaration in Isaiah 1:3 states: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib.” This is a lament from God that these animals know their place and accept it, yet God's own people do not. This exact statement is reiterated again in Luke by Jesus, this time in reference to the world rejecting him. Jewish commentaries translate this passage as a profound statement about the insolence of sinners, saying that sages know that even an animal with no intelligence does not balk at or throw off the yoke it was born into, while sinners disregard their birthright as children of God to fulfill their desires rather than the will of their creator.

In Art

The ox and the donkey are frequently shown surrounding Jesus in works of art and nativity scenes. Artwork dating back as early as the fourth century depict the donkey and ox flanking a crib where Jesus sleeps. In fact, in these early forms of art, all the other seemingly more important characters -- such as Mary, the shepherd and the stable -- are neglected. Such intentional artwork seems to imply that the entire lesson and story of Jesus and his birth can be summed up with the trifecta of Jesus, the ox and the donkey. Christians believe that there is deep symbolism surrounding this imagery.

Symbolism

The Christian symbolism is deep and manyfold, but the core lies within the status and character of the two animals. The ox is a ritually clean animal, while the donkey is not, so these animals represent the two nations: the ox is the Jews and the donkey is the Gentiles. What all the imagery is attempting to paint is a clear picture of unification. According to most Christian beliefs, in all these instances, songs, Biblical passages and artwork, the ox and the donkey are depicted together to symbolize the cessation of separatism and the embracing of a unified world. The imagery is always joined with Jesus, indicating that only in a world completely devoid of sin and hatred can the two nations, the entire world, and physical and spiritual consciousness be brought together.

Christians also believe that the ox and donkey are present at the birth of Jesus to indicate that before his coming, the world was filled with ignorant beings. Only after Jesus' birth was the world, Jews and pagans alike, enlightened to the word of God.