The Ox, The Ass and the Passion of the Nativity, by Noel Terranova (Memoria Dei):
If we look at examples of the Nativity from the visual arts, we can see that the general eschatological thrust of Advent becomes more focused, giving us a glimpse of Jesus’ passion already at the scene of this birth. All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas. This should not surprise us. The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end. In a nativity icon this is super concentrated. Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements. The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.
For a further example, I would draw our attention to the ox and the ass. These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images. They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath. Their significance should be plain … [more]