In the Gospel of Luke, Christians learn from an early age that Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger. But how many of us even know what a manger is or what it’s for?

Best-selling author Anthony DeStefano clears up the mystery of the manger, and much more, in his latest and just-in-time-for-Christmas children’s book, The Grumpy Old Ox (Sophia Institute Press).

Yes, this is the ox pictured as a silent witness in so many paintings and creches and live nativity scenes. But in DeStefano’s telling and artist Richard Cowdrey’s illustrations, this ox takes an active role in the Christmas story, learning much about humility and selflessness along the way, and imparting important lessons about Christianity.

When we first meet the ox, he has an air of defiance as he sits with arms and legs crossed and seems to have just kicked his water bucket, probably hurting himself in the process; in one of the most unforgettable illustrations, Cowdrey pictures the ox with an Ace bandage wrapped around his left knee.

DeStefano lets us know the ox is “grumpy and old, blind as a bat, selfish and cold.” But we soon learn that his owner is the proprietor of a small inn, and the plot thickens.

The ox stays alone in his stable, cold night following cold night, until the inn’s owner appears with a young couple and tells them, ‘You’ll have to stay here – no room at my inn!” The young woman lays down on a blanket on the earthen floor and gives birth. Almost immediately, the ox learns a lesson in empathy.

“Strange as it seems, the ox became sad, because the young family was treated so bad.”

He limped over to the manger – kind of a wooden food bowl filled with straw, who knew? – and gave it to the woman for the baby’s bed. He offered his water pail for the new mom to bathe her baby. Somehow she understood his gestures, if not the words he spoke in “ox-talk.”

Soon the stable was hopping, with shepherds and wise men, all illuminated by a bright star. Realizing this baby “must be from God,” the ox stays next to the new mom until she and her husband and child leave the next day.

Once again alone in the stable, the ox realizes he has only himself to blame for his loneliness, and he vows to be different.

He eats the straw the baby had slept on and drinks the water used for his bath, then falls asleep. When he rouses in the morning, he can see and the bandage around his leg unravels as he realizes his limp has been healed.

“I drank of the water and now I feel free,” he rejoices. “I ate from the manger and now I can see.”

Children hearing the story may come away reassured that even at their grumpiest worst, they can do and be better. DeStefano hopes the ox also speaks to adults and that they pick up the deeper meaning in this multi-layered book.

Let’s go back to the manger.

As DeStefano explains, “It’s not an accident that Jesus was born in a manger. God did that to show that Jesus is the Bread of Life; that he came into the world to feed the hungry, to restore sight to the blind, and to set free those who are captive to sin.”

DeStefano hopes readers also will come away understanding the connection between pride and spiritual blindness.

“The ox in this story seems destined to live out his days frustrated, unhappy and alone,” DeStefano says, “until he makes a life-altering decision to try to help the humble little babe in the stable. That faith decision, made in humility, is what brings him the miraculous gift of healing and joy.”

In the final illustration of the ox, his eyes are wide open and he seems to be smiling as he rejoices, “I can see, I can see; at last I can see!”

The Grumpy Old Box can be ordered at ProLifeProducts.org, where it is bundled with DeStefano’s first Christmas book for children, Little Star. It also can be ordered at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com

To hear DeStefano read the book, click here.