A donkey is a member of the horse family. On the first day of my retreat, we were invited to think about why Jesus chose to ride a donkey into Jerusalem as a prelude to his execution. He could have come like the king he was—riding on a white stallion. The chief reason he came on a lowly animal is probably because in his culture, the donkey was a work animal while a horse was ridden in war. Jesus was Prince of Peace not of War. A prophecy stated, “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; . . . humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). A donkey’s back is marked with a large cross of dark fur, linking it to Palm Sunday.
The retreat director told us that a donkey spends much of its life resting in the grass. The point was that we need to just rest now and then and leave things up to God. I did research and found that donkeys spend six to seven hours a day eating. I don’t recommend imitating them in that regard.
Donkeys are strong. Most of them are beasts of burden, their backs laden with items and people they transport to another place. I’ve read that in first-century Israel men would ride donkeys while women walked. Martin Luther noted, “Artists gave Mary a donkey on the way to Bethlehem; the Gospel writers didn’t.” A donkey is often a member of a Nativity scene. Donkeys also work for us by turning mills, plowing, and threshing. They have served us for at least 5,000 years. Some donkeys are kept as pets. And who hasn’t played Pin the Tail on the Donkey?
Donkeys’ reputations have been smeared. They are accused of being stubborn, but they are only practicing self-protection. Sometimes our actions have been misinterpreted. So have Jesus’s. A synonym for donkey has long been ass. However, when the word “arse” for rear end became shortened to ass, the term used for donkey became derogatory. (By the way, a burro is a small donkey, a male donkey is a jack and and female donkey is a jenny. The offspring of a male donkey and a mare is a mule, and the offspring of a female donkey and a stallion is a hinny.)
A donkey’s braying can last 20 seconds and can be heard for about two miles. While horses travel in herds, donkeys spread apart because they lived in the desert where food was sparse. Their raucous voice could connect them with other donkeys. Their large ears enabled them to hear other donkeys from afar.
In Egypt the donkey was a symbol of the sun-god Ra. Nowadays it stands for the democratic party, thanks to an 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast that popularized the idea that originated in 1830.
You probably now know more about donkeys than you wanted to know. I found these facts interesting. Hope you did too.
Why do you think St. Francis referred to his body as Brother Ass?
What animal is particularly dear to you? Why?