On This Feast Day of the Ass

Happy Feast Day of the Ass! No kidding. Animals get short shrift in religious beliefs and practice (apart from the Hindu cow, and sacrifice, of course), so I found it quite wonderful to stumble on an old tradition celebrating the biblical donkey.joseph-leading-mary-on-donkey

For a time, Christians seriously honored the animal who brought a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem and spirited the newborn Jesus to safety in Egypt. There is that sweet if monotonous Christmas carol in which the friendly animals each get a word: “I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown. I carried his mother up hill and down. I carried his mother to Bethlehem town. I, said the donkey shaggy and brown.” But the holiday has since died out.

Somewhere in the festival’s history, a talking donkey from the Old Testament (Balaam’s ass) got incorporated. That story, which takes place in “the wilderness/desert” before the wandering Hebrews made their way to the Promised Land, tells of a prophet’s donkey, who unlike the man of God on his back, could see the supernatural messenger (angel) of God directing their way. After suffering under the prophet’s ire, the donkey finally spoke up… and was vindicated by God.

donkeyConcerning the holiday, it didn’t take long before what seems to have been a serious recognition of a humble if notoriously stubborn critter became the butt of jokes, and the church festival devolved into an anti-semitic burlesque of a sort. By coincidence, this is also the Feast day of St. Hilary — i.e., Hilarius. Can’t you just hear that talking donkey now? “Humans ruin everything.”

But hey, today I raise a sober glass of water to that darling creature of the odd ears and sweet brown eyes, so vital and even wise. Here’s to the donkey!

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