(Mt 21:1-11, Is 50:4-7, Ph 2:6-11, Mt 26:14-27:66)
I know a person who spends a lot of time each summer hiking in the high Sierras in California. He’s retired so he has plenty of time, and he feels close to God when he’s in the midst of all that beauty up there. He has back problems so he uses two donkeys to pack all his gear and supplies. He trained and broke his two donkeys himself, as well as a couple for other people. He boards them at the ranch of a guy who taught him a lot about the process. This guy used to be in charge of a program where they would round up wild horses and donkeys in the desert in California and then make use of the inmates of a prison there to help break them and then sell them. The prisoners loved it; it was a popular program.
Well, donkeys aren’t naturally docile – they have a mind of their own. Like horses, they’re a herd animal. Co-existing in peace has a lot to do with establishing a pecking order. There is always an alpha male and usually some jockeying for position. So when you’re training a donkey, and even afterwards, you need to make sure they know you’re the boss. And you need to teach them respect for the lead rope. Basically, you have to break their self-will.
I have been intentionally leaving out names because I don’t want to get these two guys in trouble with the animal rights people. Their process for breaking donkeys might strike some people as cruel but it is quick and effective. I chose to go ahead and use it because I want to draw the parallel later of how we have to sometimes be harsh on our own flesh in order to bring it under the subjection of our spirit. As we just heard Jesus tell his companions, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).
As I mentioned, you need to teach them respect for a rope so that when you want to lead them and you tug on it, they’ll start following and won’t fight you and try to pull away in the opposite direction – which is what they’re programmed to do by nature. It’s been awhile since the hiker described the process to me so I might not be precise in some of my details. Basically, you rope them and then tie the other end of the rope to a sturdy post. As they try to pull away the rope tightens around their neck. They learn that the more they fight it, the worse it makes the situation for them. But fighting it is so ingrained in their nature that they keep on until they’re down on the ground gasping for oxygen. Eventually, they kind of black out. That’s when you dash in and loosen the rope. They’re able to breathe then and they come around and stand up again. But the whole experience has a huge effect on them. They stand there thinking it over for a while. Everafter, they have respect for ropes and are compliant. You still have some polishing up to do, but the main work of breaking a donkey has been accomplished
I bring up donkeys because today is Palm Sunday and a donkey played a prominent role in the opening gospel when Fr. Aelred read St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. It is convenient that we are using St. Matthew’s version this year, Year A. Last year was St. Luke; next year is St. Mark. St. John is an alternative option for next year. So all four Evangelists describe this scene. Matthew is the only one, however, who includes the curious detail of Jesus riding two animals at one time! I bet you haven’t seen THAT depicted in art. But there it is: Matthew writes, “They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon THEM.” We’re so used to hearing the other three versions that we can easily miss it. Matthew was very intent on having this scene fulfill a prophecy from the Old Testament. So as he was writing it he had one eye on the 9th chapter of Zechariah. A too literal reading of the prophecy might lead one to believe that Zechariah was talking about two animals: a donkey and its colt. But he is just using the standard literary device in Hebrew poetry of parallelism. We see it everyday in the Psalms. They would say the same thing twice in different ways. Let’s look at that passage from the prophet Zechariah. The first two lines are a perfect example of parallelism.
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you;
a just savior is he,
Meek, and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,
and the horse from Jerusalem:
The warrior’s bow shall be banished,
and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
So Zechariah is contrasting here a horse and a donkey. As the footnote says here in my New American Bible, “The Messiah will come, not as a conquering warrior, but in lowliness and peace. Not like the last kings of Judah, who rode in chariots and on horses, but like the princes of old, the Messiah will ride on an ass.” The footnote in Matthew is also good: “Jesus entered Jerusalem as king of peace, riding, not a horse, symbol of the conqueror, but the ass, the work beast of the poor.”
At this point, it might be helpful to clarify some terms. The words “ass” and “donkey” are interchangeable. “Burro” is the Spanish word for “donkey”. A female donkey is called a jenny. A male donkey is called a jack or a jackass. A “mule” is what you get when you cross a male donkey and a female horse. It was a mule that Absolom was riding when his hair was caught in the tree and he was left hanging between heaven and earth (2 Sam 18:9). A “hinny” is the result of mating a female donkey and a male horse. Since mules and hinnies are hybrids, they are almost always sterile. A young male horse under four is called a colt. A young female horse under four is called a filly. A young horse under a year old is called a foal, regardless of gender. A mare is a grown female, a stallion a grown male, and a gelding a castrated male.
In St. Luke’s version of this story, he uses only the word “colt”. If we only had that gospel we wouldn’t know for sure if Jesus was riding a horse or a donkey. There is another detail peculiar to Luke: he tells us it is a colt “on which no one has ever sat.” Ordinarily, if horses and donkeys are not used to having someone sit on them, they will buck you off. Is this an indication that Jesus had special power over animals? I guess it shouldn’t surprise us.
So now for the parallel of training and disciplining our body so that it will be subservient to our spirit and mind and soul. Comparing our body to a donkey is nothing new. St. Francis called his body Brother Ass. One time when he was struggling with temptation he went out and rolled in the snow naked to bring his flesh into subjection. St. Benedict is said to have done the same thing in thorn bushes and stinging nettles. Because of its fallen state, our human nature left to itself, will tend toward vice and self-indulgence. It is like that wild donkey that doesn’t want to be reined in. Fr. Gerard has been touching on this in his chapter talks recently. “The Old Hag” revolts when she starts sensing self-discipline. But without taming our wild human nature, without breaking our self-will, we aren’t going to make much progress in the spiritual life. For most people the gentle approach won’t work. We have to take drastic measures like the choking donkey trick in order to bring our unruly passions under control. I know that kind of talk isn’t popular today. But look what a mess the world is in. Could there be a connection? We know how to discipline our bodies for sports and to look attractive. Working out at gyms is popular and eating less-tasty health foods. But meanwhile, churches are empty and morals are slipping. Suicides are up, as well as despair, depression, and substance abuse.
I don’t want to end on a downer note, though. Instead, let us picture the faithful little donkey that we see in artwork as Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem. It helped keep Jesus warm in his first few hours when he was in the stable and then was a key component in helping them escape Herod into Egypt. Our bodies too are faithful and necessary companions when brought into line with right reason and godly precepts. After the Last Judgment, we will be reunited with our bodies for all eternity.