This time of year we see many beautiful depictions of the birth of Jesus Christ, especially in old paintings from the renaissance or earlier. I'm particularly interested in the presence of an ox in so many of these paintings. His presence lends a feeling of increased solemnity and nobility to the scene, and some artist depict the ox as quite interested in the newborn Christ child. Yet, I wonder if Christians understand the full purport of the ox's presence in the pictures of Christ's nativity. Of course, in the Bible, Luke 2:12 states, "Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." And, this is the basis for including the ox in the picture. It is his manger, so therefore, he is there to witness the event.
But for a Vaisnava, there is the added significance that the ox or bull represents Dharma, the Personality of Religion. Thus, it is quite interesting to see the ox depicted in these pictures of the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Srila Prabhupada informs us is a saktyavesa-avatara incarnation of God.
CHRIST ENDS ANIMAL SACRIFICE
Some people have disputed Srila Prabhupada's instruction that Jesus is a saktyavesa avatara, asserting that if that were true, then Jesus would have told people to stop eating meat. But Srila Prabhupada had a different understanding of Christ's instructions. On numerous occasions, such as during his 1973 conversation with Cardinal Danielou, Srila Prabhupada pointed out that Christ's instructions were, "Do not kill," and by eating meat the Christians were defying Christ's instructions.
And, in fact we are told that in early times, many priests did live on a vegetarian diet. Currently, the only major Christian sect to be vegetarian are the Seventh Day Adventists, but for centuries different Christian sects have recognized abstaining from meat as an act favorable to spiritual progress. For centuries, in remembrance of Christ, even the average Catholic would not eat red meat on Friday. So, even among the Christians themselves, there is evidence to support Prabhupada's implication that Christ rejected meat-eating as unfavorable to spiritual advancement.
It is also interesting to note the similarity between Christ and Lord Buddha (whom Srila Prabhupada also describes as a saktyavesa-avatara incarnation of God) in ending the practice of ritual animal sacrifice. In the ancient Vedic period, ritual cow sacrifice was considered a pious religious act. But such sacrifice is prohibited for the Kali Yuga in the following verse of the ancient Brahma-vaivarta Purana (Krsna-janma-khanda 185.180):
In this Age of Kali, five acts are forbidden:
the offering of a horse in sacrifice,
the offering of a cow in sacrifice,
the acceptance of the order of sannyasa,
the offering of oblations of flesh to the forefathers,
and a man's begetting children in his brother's wife.
As a means of ending religious sacrifice of animals, Lord Buddha outwardly rejected the Vedas. Like the ancient Vedic priests, the ancient Hebrew priests also practiced animal sacrifice. In fact most of the mention of "oxen" in the Old Testament of the Bible are references to oxen being sacrificed, because that was considered the highest type of sacrifice.
However, Lord Jesus rejected such sacrifice as a materialistic money-making racket. The Bible, Luke (2:14-19) reveals that ending the ritual sacrifice of animals meant rejecting the old religion and establishing a new, purified religion:
And he found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting. And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables. And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise--Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
ANIMAL SACRIFICE REPLACED BY WORSHIP OF HOLY NAME
In the Vaisnava tradition, we understand that the elaborate animal sacrifices of earlier ages have been replaced in this age by the sacrifice of chanting the Lord's Holy Name. The Bible's book of Psalms (69:30-31) foresees a similar transition:
I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify Him with Thanksgiving. This also shall please the Lord better than an ox or bullock that hath horns and hoofs.
But it was only by the act of Christ that the average person could see that the practice of animal sacrifice was now thoroughly discredited as a pious act. Srila Prabhupada often noted, especially when talking with Christian leaders, that in the Lord's prayer, "Hallowed be thy Name!" Christ is emphasizing the importance of glorifying the Holy Name, just as Lord Caitanya does. The sacrifice for the modern age is not slaughtering oxen, but worshipping the Lord's Holy Name.
CHRIST AS MASTER YOKE-MAKER
There is one more connection between Jesus and the oxen which I find of interest. According to the Bible (Matthew 13.55 and Mark 6.3), Jesus worked as a carpenter before he set out on his preaching mission at age 30. According to Christian understanding, the carpentry work that Jesus did was not so much building houses or making furniture as it was fashioning agricultural equipment. In his later preaching mission, Jesus often made analogies with references relating to his experience as a carpenter. Probably the most famous example is when he encourages other to join his movement and dedicate their lives to serving God, saying (Matthew 11:30) For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Related to this verse, there is a well-known tradition with numerous versions, that Jesus had posted over his carpentry shop a sign which said, "My Yokes Fit Well." And in these accounts, we once again glimpse his special relationship serving Dharma, the Personality of Religion.
Here's one version from Johanna Morrigan of the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan, Sauk Centre, Minnesota:
Jesus the carpenter was one of the master yoke-makers in the Nazareth area. People came from miles around for a yoke, hand carved and carefully crafted by Jesus, the son of Joseph. We might imagine a customer arriving with his team of oxen. The man waits patiently under an olive tree until the carpenter is finished with his task. Then Jesus approaches the animals slowly and gently - so as not to startle them. He whispers softly as he measures them - their height, their width, the space between them, the size of their shoulders. He works very slowly and carefully - taking his time - until he is satisfied that he knows the animals well - knows where their strengths are - and where they might be vulnerable to pressure or too much weight. Jesus tells the man to return with his oxen in a week's time.
When the man returns, Jesus again approaches the oxen slowly and quietly. They have learned in such a short time to trust this gentle man. So they allow him to place the new yoke over their shoulders. He checks carefully for any roughness that might chafe or rub. Removing the yoke, he smoothes out the edges. Again he takes his time. It's essential that the yoke fit perfectly if this team is to be able to do its work well. And so when he is done, the yoke is an exact fit for this particular team of oxen.
This account goes on to say that just as Jesus made the yoke fit well for the oxen, so the "yoke" of dedicating our lives to the service of God is a good fit for human beings. The Vaisnava, naturally, cannot fail to note that the work "yoke" is actually a cognate of the word "yoga." The Vaisnava will go on to complete the analogy noting that just as a well-fitting yoke can help Father Bull do his work of plowing the field, similarly the well-fitting "yoke" of bhakti-yoga and worshipping the Holy Name will help the human being do his or her service of working for the Lord.
So at this time of year when Christians are worshipping Baby
Jesus lying in a straw-filled manger, with Mary and Joseph
seated nearby, the Vaisnavas can grasp the special significance
of the ox looking lovingly on the Christ child's radiant
presence. Maybe someday we can tell them.