Glory to God for All Things

Riding on a Donkey

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As far back as Genesis, in the prophecy of Jacob over his sons, we hear the association of the Messiah with a donkey:

Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s children shall bow down before you.
      Judah is a lion’s whelp;
      From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
      He bows down, he lies down as a lion;
      And as a lion, who shall rouse him?
      The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
      Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
      Until Shiloh comes;
      And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
      Binding his donkey to the vine,
      And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
      He washed his garments in wine,
      And his clothes in the blood of grapes.
      His eyes are darker than wine,
      And his teeth whiter than milk. (Genesis 49:8-12)

There are additional prophecies:

Tell the daughter of Zion,
      ‘Behold, your King is coming to you,
      Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
      A colt, the foal of a donkey.’

This word, taken from Zechariah, seems to fit the occasion in a manner that reveals Christ as He has been made known: “King coming to you lowly…” Christ is the lowly king.

Where we fail to draw the proper conclusion is that God is a lowly king. Many prefer the God of the philosophers, or the God of a religion ultimately foreign to Christ (“you know not what Spirit you are of”). In my postings here, many have rushed to defend the angry God, the God who destroys cities, as if by my suggestion that such interpretations are not consonant with the words of the Fathers, I was somehow making God to be less than He is. We cannot make of Him less than He made of Himself. For the great mystery that will be set forth before us in the words and actions of Holy Week and Pascha are the weakness of God which is the very manifestation of His power.

The tragedy of this lies not just in the false telling of the story of our salvation – but the false images to which we are willing to ally ourselves. To admit that it is God’s humility and emptiness, His meekness and lowliness to which we are to be conformed threatens us many times over – for it strikes at the very arrogance of our heart. “God resists the proud.”

We arrogantly refuse to fast. We arrogantly refuse to forgive. We judge in arrogance and in arrogance we raise our voices from the depths of hell. We hear not so much as an echo for there are no walls in hell. Even what passed for gates were long ago destroyed. Only our desire for delusion holds us there.

Our King, on the other hand, comes to us in lowliness. In my observation, there is no way to arrogantly ride a donkey. Donkeys are beasts of burden, but they are also beasts of buffoonery. 

I heard a story once of a man who sat in a restaurant contemplating his own suicide. He was an actor and his career was failing. As he sat, lost in his private hell, he heard tapping at the window. The tapping continued until he looked up. Even after he looked up the tapping continued until every head was raised and turned towards the annoyance. Then a sign was held up to the window:

“I’m a fool for Jesus,” it read. “Whose fool are you?”

That day a fool turned aside from his suicide. If we are willing to become foolish and follow the path of a donkey, we may become wise like God, Who for our sake became weak and lowly.

23 Responses to “Riding on a Donkey”

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  1. Photo: I am arrogantly haggling over the price of a ride on a donkey. Avoiding bufoonery, I failed to come to an acceptable agreement. Thus, there is only the picture of me haggling and not actually on a donkey.

  2. Karen says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    Christ’s triumph through weakness is threatening to me precisely because I know it leads in this sinful world to a cross, pain and suffering. So my pride and arrogance–my holding back from God–foolish as they are, are in defense against that pain. Ultimately this is futile–I am only procrastinating the pain. I will never be able to avoid it altogether. Counting the cost, taking up our cross and following is hard, but there’s no way around this. The way to the empty tomb, to the Kingdom, is through the Cross. Lord, have mercy.

    “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . . If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” (1 Peter 4:12-14, 16)

    “Let this mind be also in you, which was in Christ Jesus, who . . . made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. . . . He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:5, 7-8)

  3. Your posts lately have been wonderful!
    Fr. Paul

  4. Thank you, Fr. Paul. I pray your holy week and Pascha will be truly wonderful.

  5. katia says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen and Bless!

    “Rejoice” says the Apostle, “and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). See how the Apostle is exhorting us. But what is this? There is a condition: “Let all men know your meekness” (The Russian text reads “meekness” instead of “forbearance” or “moderation” which appear in the English versions), continues the Apostle. Look here, spring has come to nature. But it will not stop here, it will go further; it will change into summer. And so it is with us — life goes on. “Let all men know your meekness.” This means that our life should move in such a way that pride will depart. It should dissolve in Christ’s patience, in Christ’s meekness. The Apostle says: May your meekness be of the Lord. And further, “Have no anxiety about anything,” but be always in prayer. Hear what promises the Lord gives. “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your wishes (The Russian text reads “wishes” instead of “requests” which appears in the English version) be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). What daring is given to us!
    But what kind of wishes should our prayers express? If they are the wishes which people experience in sitting rooms, theaters, worldly amusements — then of course, brothers, the Lord desires something else for us, because all of this will remain here. This senselessness, this commotion, this quarreling, this adversity, this rage, all this will remain here. And only joy will depart with us. This is joy: if you wish for meekness, humility, prosperity, brotherly love, Christian living, quiet — then pray! The Lord will be with you. Rejoice! The Holy Day is approaching. Tomorrow there will come great moments when the Sacrament is being performed. And so in our hearts will be revealed this joy: Christ is Risen! May this joy abide with us in a joyous feeling of Eternal Life.

    By Archbishop Andrei (Rymarenko, 1893-1978)

  6. katia says:

    St. Ephrem the Syrian

    From on high He came down as Lord,
    From the womb He came forth as a servant
    Death knelt before Him in Sheol,
    And Life worshipped Him in His resurrection.
    Blessed is His victory! …

    He did not shrink from the unclean,
    He did not turn away from sinners,
    In the sincere He greatly delighted,
    At the simple He greatly rejoiced.
    Blessed is His teaching!

    He did not hold back His footsteps from the sick,
    or His words from the simple;
    He extended His descent to the lowly,
    And His ascension to the highest.
    Blessed is His sender!

  7. I love this particular hymn of St. Ephrem’s.

  8. Meskerem says:

    In his first coming, his entry to Jerusalem he showed humility by coming on a donkey starting from the Palm Sunday continued to the Holy week, he wept, has washed feet, spat on, being called names until his death he humbled himself.

    On his second glorious coming on his Victory we will see him on a white horse leading the Saints. The righteous who follow Christ will someday stand in Victory with him in Heaven.

  9. Father Stephen, I wonder if I might ask you a pastoral question, since I imagine you run into this a lot. This lent I fasted from dairy (though not the full Orthodox fast which would have included meat) which proved difficult enough for me. I also did the full fast from Maundy Thursday to Easter Morning.

    Yet, as far as I can perceive this did me little spiritual benefit. I tried to pray more, but the fruit of my fasting seemed mostly that I was uncomfortable and more irritable towards my wife and children. Are some of us not spiritually mature enough to attempt fasting?

  10. Wonders,

    We should start slowly with fasting and with our prayers. We can’t suddenly launch out and rival the desert fathers. Your experience sounds pretty normal. It really helps to have a confessor and spiritual father with all of this. My greatest asset is my wife, who prays more and fasts better than I do. She also cooks – thus much of my fasting consists in eating what is set before me – and doing my best to pray at least as much as she does.

    Who can find a virtuous wife?
    For her worth is far above rubies.
    The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
    So he will have no lack of gain.
    She does him good and not evil
    All the days of her life.

  11. katia says:

    Hi wonders,
    hope this can help

    “… The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.

    ‘ Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5)

    The link between prayer and fasting is rightly indicated by Fr. Alexander Elchaninov.
    A critic of fasting says to him:
    ‘Our work suffers and we become irritable……….. I have never seen servants (in pre-revolutionary Russia) so bad tempered as during the last days of Holy Week. Clearly, fasting has a very bad effect on the nerves.’ To this Fr. Alexander replies: ‘You are quite right. . . . If it is not accompanied by prayer and an increased spiritual life, it merely leads to a heightened state of irritability. It is natural that servants who took their fasting seriously and who were forced to work hard during Lent, while not being allowed to go to church, were angry and irritable.’

    ….. fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action of for direct encounter with God.

    The Lenten Triodion

  12. Mark the Zealot says:

    I agree with the emphasis on the Lowly King. That said, The Old Testament has several references associating rulers/royalty with donkeys/asses. Perhaps the rulers of Israel were expected to have a degree of humility – submission to God.

    Judges 5:9-11 (King James Version)

    9 My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD.

    10 Speak, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way.

    11 They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel: then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.

    And Judges 12:14 (King James Version):

    14 And he [Jepthah] had forty sons and thirty nephews, that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years.

    See also how Saul met Samuel for the first time and Absolom’s death.

    One other donkey observation: yesterday, while looking at the icon of the Feast, I was reminded of the donkey at the Nativity Manger. In the Palm Sunday icon, the donkey had his head down, and he looked ready to munch on a palm branch!

  13. Collator says:

    Mark the Zealot, thanks for pointing out other occasions where donkeys are used by eminent Israelites. Add to this the episode where Abigail rides on a donkey to meet David and propitiate him for the folly of her husband. I was thinking about this theme yesterday. I wonder if donkeys (and mules too) had (and maybe still have) primarily civilian connotations in the Middle East. Obviously, you would not want to ride a donkey into battle. Perhaps its use is intended to indicate peaceful times or a peaceful encounter, in addition to humility. On a more mundane note, for practical purposes donkeys and mules are better on mountainous terrain.

  14. Dana Ames says:

    Wonders,
    I heard a presentation by Scot McKnight from his new book about fasting. He said that in scripture, fasting is not done for the benefit of the one fasting, or to “make” anything at all happen, with us or with God- that teaching is not to be found in the bible, but arose later. Rather, in scripture, fasting is “the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life”, either profound grief, or the threat of death (imminent attack by the enemies of Israel).

    I find that this fits quite neatly with the whole of Lent as a “sacred moment”, with 1) all the liturgical readings during Lent lamenting and grieving over the fact that we still sin the way we do, and praying for fasting to lead us away from that, and 2) recognition of the attacks of the devil, and the threat of non-existence outside of Christ/the life of God- Fr. Stephen describes it as “being poised at the edge of the abyss”… In addition, Scot starts the whole thing out by pointing out how modern Christians are alienated from their bodies (two-storey-ness). I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the thick connections between what this very careful scholar was saying and what I have encountered in the life of Orthodoxy.

    In a review of Scot’s book, Trevin Wax writes “If we receive something after or during the fast, it is because God has used the yearning in our heart (expressed through the fast) in order to grace us with more of his presence.” There is benefit, but we don’t fast for “direct” benefit. Makes sense to me.

    Dana

  15. katia says:

    On Fasting
    Homily I
    by St. Basil the Great
    Archbishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia

    No, go back through history and inquire into the ancient
    origins of fasting. It is not a recent invention; it is an heirloom handed down
    by our fathers. Everything distinguished by antiquity is venerable. Have re-
    spect for the antiquity of fasting. It is as old as humanity itself; it was pre-
    scribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of
    the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.”9 Through the
    words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If
    Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast.
    “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”10 We have
    been wounded through sin; we are healed through repentance, but repent-
    ance without fasting is fruitless.

  16. Mark the Zealot says:

    Collator, well-spotted.

    One more just occurred to me: Balaam’s ass (Numbers 22).

  17. Deb Seeger says:

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for providing laughter about the arrogance and the donkey story. I find that my arrogance is so hidden from me, it makes it easy to laugh. I know if I saw the state of my soul, I would be so discouraged and despondent but thankfully His grace leads me through.
    Since I am not Orthodox, I fasted the Catholic way and only until the Gregorian calendar of Easter. Yet, it was the hardest fast I have ever encountered. Not physically but emotionally and spiritually charged and constant temptation to break the fast. In the past, I have accomplished total fast except for water and reached a spiritual high place ; but this year it was especially difficult with only abstaining from two things and particularly the last week. I am grateful for the grace to endure and look forward to more rewarding future fasting and prayers.

    Thank you kindly for your postings and I look forward to my first Orthodox service.–someday. I am apprehensive about the chanting.

  18. isaac8 says:

    I guess I am a little infected with the thought of Foucault. I am always thinking of power relations. It occurred to me that with the turning to the self comes the existence of power relations. God becomes fearful in the garden because Adam and Eve are suddenly painfully aware of power relations. So maybe that has something to do with the attachment among many Christians to a “god of power” and the rejection of the kind of humble God that would ride upon an ass.

  19. Katia Says (moved here by Fr. Stephen)

    “…. After this it is our task to examine ourselves and discover in which light we are in life: that of Christ or of someone else? Whatever light it is, if it is not of Christ, then for our eternal salvation it is as good as darkness, and even sometimes worse than darkness. For a man caught in the darkness at least either stops or goes slowly groping his way, taking care, if he can, to step into the light. But under a false light a person is calm, goes along without stopping, allowing himself every kind of movement, changing paths and directions; and, inasmuch as he is led by a false light, like a swimmer at sea, he is exposed to inevitable dangers or goes somewhere from which there is no return. Is this not the same as happens with many intelligent people who, placing their hope in worldly wisdom, scorn the light of Christ? Where do they go, and where do they lead those who follow them? They go and lead others to such an abyss of impiety and vice that one glance into it fills with trembling the heart that has not lost its human feeling.

    Beware, my brothers, of this false light, which in our times has especially begun to blind the eyes of many. Remember firmly that Christ alone is our true light, which enlightens every man coming into the world and going out of the world. If you meet a teacher, first try to learn of what light he is. If the light is not of Christ, then no matter who he is, block your ears and heart. For just as in the sensible world there is one sun and no other light besides it, so too in the spiritual world there is one true and life-giving light: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
    St. Innocent (Borisov), Archbishop of Kherson – incendiary

  20. Isaac8,

    Foucault is a little over the top for me, but I would agree that the fascination with the “God of power” is a human projection of a very big version of ourselves onto the universe. Humility and love (the real thing) we would hardly suspect. Better to have a God like us, than one Who would ask us to change. The Power God is not just the God of the Philosophers, but also the God of rulers and oppressors, who imagine their political impotence (power) to be a reflection of something Divine, when it is usually demonic in form and substance.

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