Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.
Luke 2:4 CEB
Today my mind drifts to all of the manger scenes I’ve encountered in my life. My grandmother had a lovely plaster of Paris manger scene when I was a young girl, which was usually surrounded by greenery, ribbon candy, and bubble lights that would burn if you touched them. Animals, including the requisite donkey, stood around the Holy Family, bowing to baby Jesus. I also remember the big plastic manger scene that sat in front of McEachern Methodist Church down from my parents’ house in my hometown of Powder Springs. Once again, there was a donkey and all the other animals. It became a custom amongst the youth to kidnap various members of the manger scene and place those members at different locations. Even when we did the live manger scene at the same church, we managed to find a nice donkey for the Holy Family. Scripturally, however, we aren’t sure if there was a donkey for Mary to ride on. We make the assumption because (a) donkeys were common rides for everyone at the time, (b) Mary and Joseph had to travel a long way to get to Bethlehem and (c) Mary was very pregnant and we would like to assume that Joseph was a stand-up husband (he did stay with her after the minor freak out over her pregnancy), so he most likely got her a donkey to ride. The scripture, however, doesn’t mention a donkey. We know that Jesus would eventually ride a white donkey into Jerusalem, signifying his kingship, but that was thirty-three years yet to come. Why do we want to include a donkey in this story so much that we make up things about him?
As a child, I was taught that the donkey was a symbol of humility, but many scholars now believe that the donkey is a symbol of a king (particularly the white donkey). I look at this a mixed sort of metaphor. We want to believe in the humility and simplicity of Jesus’ birth, but we also acknowledge that he is the King of Kings. Jesus is a man of strange dichotomies. He is a man and God. He is our brother and our Father. The donkey is like this as well. We assume that he carried a young, not so wealthy teen mom across the land to a place where she would have her baby. He also is a connection to another donkey, thirty-three years later, who would carry her grown son to the city where he would be labeled king and Messiah and criminal and dead man and risen lord. The donkey gives us access to a birth and a life that we are still trying to completely understand and then he becomes a gateway again to a new life, new covenant and a new view of how we can interact with our deity. While there is no real mention of the creature and the stories we have created about the donkey that might have maybe been present at the birth of Christ, the donkey isn’t the real point anyway. He’s just a symbol to support what we already know about Jesus and how he would ultimately change everything we thought we knew about God and our relationship with Him. The donkey is a harbinger and a reflection of what we understand about Jesus, and no matter how real or not real this creature is, we need this sort of connecter to begin to understand the bigger story.
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Dear Lord, Thank you for showing us gateways to connect to your son. Allow us to see Him in all his humility and in all his Godship. Amen.
Jessica is a writer, an English instructor at Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Georgia, and a burgeoning karaoke singer. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University. Her journey as a follower of Christ is ongoing. Her children are both adults, and she is having all sorts of new adventures that she couldn't have when her kids were young. She currently resides in a small 60s ranch style house in Cobb County, Georgia, and hopes to one day have a sponsor so that she can spend her days as a writer and possible karaoke singing beach bum. She's sure God laughs about this hope daily. She can be followed on Tumblr.