The Distinguished Donkey
When you read the title of this article, you are probably thinking about that figure of speech called an oxymoron, for who would refer to a donkey as being distinguished, especially when you often hear the derogatory comment “dumb-ass!”
A donkey, usually considered a beast of burden, the “burro” in Spanish, has often been disregarded through the ages. Fun has been made of these stubborn animals that meander along silently, unless provoked, and then bray loud and long.
As a student of English literature, the first Shakespearan play I read was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where I met the character Nick Bottom. He wants to play all the parts in “Pyramus and Thisbe” the play within the play, sports a donkey’s head, and provides comic relief in this romantic comedy. Bottom acts like an ass or fool, yet is a symbolic centre-piece knitting together all the action in the play.
To meet Dapple, Sancho Panza’s donkey in Cervante’s “Don Quixote” is to get to know a timid, long suffering donkey, whose loyalty in the face of many trials endears him to his master. Dapple is raised to the level of a family member in Sancho’s estimation.
How about Benjamin, the donkey in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” He is the oldest animal, a big complainer, does his job, but is astute enough to stay out of the way. He watches the changes on the farm after the rebellion, and says, “Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey.” He breaks his own rule however, when he sees his best friend Boxer is being taken to the slaughter house.
One can say that Benjamin is smarter than Eeyore, the old, grey, pessimistic donkey, a friend of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Moving along to another children’s story, is to encounter the puppet Pinocchio and his friend Carlo, whose naughty behavior turn them into, wonder of wonders, braying donkeys.
Talking about donkeys in the Old Testament brings one to the dramatic story in Numbers 22:22-35, when Balaam ill treated his donkey, till the Lord opened her mouth and she said, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?” Or in Judges 15:16 when Samson excitedly exclaimed, “With the jawbone of an ass….I have slain a thousand men.” What is remarkable is that the wise King Solomon rode to his coronation on a mule that once belonged to David. (1 Kings 1:33-44)
It is in Luke’s Gospel that we hear of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem to fulfill the Roman law requirement. However, the fact that Joseph probably used a donkey to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem is stated in chapter 17 of the Protoevangellium of James, an apocryphal Gospel, “The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and sat her upon it…and Joseph followed.”
Meditating on Caravaggio’s oil on canvas painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds” brings into focus the holy family, the adoring shepherds, and the lowly donkey. Painted in 1609, the Italian Michelangelo commonly called Caravaggio used a special technique chiaroscuro to show the contrast between light and dark.
So while the human figures are bathed in light, the animals stand in the dark. The donkey in the shadows acts as a backdrop for the light surrounding the humans. The humility in this scene is so apparent here enveloped by love. The position of the donkey in the painting would almost seem as if he was watching over, or protecting the mother and child he had carried for perhaps four long days.
Towards the end of his public ministry Jesus entered Jerusalem in glory. The prophet Zechariah in chapter 9:9 says, “Behold your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.”
Typology brings one to Mark’s Gospel chapter 11:1-11 when Jesus rode a colt assumed to be a donkey into Jerusalem with the people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was not the Hollywood red carpet scene with celebrities rolling up in stretch limousines waving to camera clicking adoring fans.
Here was the Son of God sitting on a humble donkey cheered on by faithful followers waving leafy branches. He who was once looked down upon had risen to being distinguished!
G.K. Chesterton says it best in his poem
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of crooked ancient will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet;
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.