As we read the stories of the Birth of Jesus it is difficult to think of Mary and Joseph without a donkey being a part of the narrative.
By Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt
Since March the eighth of 2022 I have had the distinct honour of being the Interim Priest in Charge of St. George’s Church, Guelph in the Diocese of Niagara.
The regular drive from Waterloo to Guelph takes approximately forty two minutes, depending on traffic lights. You may gather from that fine attention to detail that I have managed to make the trip on numerous occasions over the months!
My route of choice takes me through the countryside and the community of Maryhill. The changing seasons have given me the opportunity to watch the transformation of tilled fields to growing crops leading to the harvest. Stables also are a part of the landscape. Horses bending down to nibble on the grass or running across a wide field have been a joy to watch and are a regular feature of many drives.
And then there is Daisy.
In the midst of all of the beautiful horses in one stable, just west of Maryhill, there is a donkey whose singular presence always makes me smile. There were days when I resisted the desire to wave, as I drove past. Then there were days when waving seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Invariably, just seeing that little donkey made me smile and brought a joyful perspective to the day.
After one such passing encounter, I called the stable office.
“Good morning”, I said. “ I am an Anglican priest carrying out a temporary ministry in Guelph. I live in Waterloo and drive by your stable every day. I always enjoy seeing your donkey in the field. Would you be kind enough to tell me the donkey’s name ?”
After chuckling at the simplicity of my question the person at the other end of the call let me know that the donkey’s name was Daisy.
I like to imagine that as I drive by now and see Daisy in the field, that when she flicks her ears, it is in response to my greeting and not because of any persistent, bothersome flies! Daisy has helped me to think about how donkeys play a significant role in our story of faith.
Throughout history the donkey is seen as a beast of burden. The donkey is the one that carries the heavy load, or a person, from place to place. Like some human beings, donkeys often may be taken for granted, and its presence blends into its surroundings where it vanishes, unappreciated for its value, even as it remains hidden in plain sight.
At various moments in the Gospel records we become aware of the role of donkeys as the story of Jesus is told. As we read the stories of the Birth of Jesus it is difficult to think of Mary and Joseph without a donkey being a part of the narrative.
Imagine Mary sitting on a donkey, when she was an expectant mother on her way to Bethlehem. Think of all the creche scenes which include a donkey standing by the manger in silent witness to the Birth of Our Lord.
Remember how the Holy Family fled Herod’s violent and senseless persecution of the children of Bethlehem? There must have been a donkey, perhaps the same donkey, that had made the journey from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judaea, who carried Mary and the baby Jesus to safety in Egypt.
I asked Daisy’s owner about her markings. Distinctive stripes along her back and across her shoulders are called, “primitive markings”. For people of faith, those markings have a special traditional meaning. The stripes on a donkey’s back in the shape of a cross, help people to remember that as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he is riding on a donkey.
Years ago, my family was given figures that are at the centre of the story of the Nativity. I share a picture with you as a part of this month’s contribution to the Huron Church News.
The figures are marked with a tag as being the result of the work done by individuals who are living in ”World Y.W.C.A. Centre - Aqaba Jaber Refugee Camp - Jericho - Jordan“. Dressed in appropriate clothing, the handmade figures hover around a straw manger in which there is “a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes”. A central figure in the grouping is… a donkey.
You may have to search diligently to find references to donkeys in the music of the Church, even as they played such essential roles in moments of significance in the life of Jesus. “The oxen lowing…” (Hymn 142), get a mention. The shepherds reflect on their experience,” While by the sheep we watched at night…”, (Hymn 134). As the sheep often get a shout out, there are few places where the donkey even gets mentioned.
(I hope that a few readers of this article who are church musicians will send me a note indicating a wealth of material that I may have overlooked on this subject)!
The simple reality is, that often, in the life of the Church, the members of a parish family who work diligently, tirelessly and quietly, as part of a community of faith get taken for granted. They hardly ever get a mention or an appreciation for their faithful commitment.
There are those whose gift of loving labour is an essential element in sustaining the life of their parish family. This Christmas season I invite you to take the time to value, appreciate and celebrate the hard working volunteers who offer their time, their talents and their energy in the life and ministry of the Church. They may be hiding in plain sight.
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt has retired from full time parish ministry, but continues to offer priestly ministry in the Diocese.