Until recently, I never thought much about how donkeys could relate to Christ. Donkeys are mentioned a few times in scripture, sure, but I never considered them to be something that could teach me about Christ.
But then I had an interesting realization about donkeys in Christ’s life that changed that for me.
The past two weeks, we’ve talked about the symbols of light, lambs, and shepherds in Christ’s birth (those articles are linked at the bottom of this page). Each of those symbols also connects with a name of Christ.
This week, the symbol doesn’t connect directly to a name of Christ. And it also isn’t a symbol that we generally talk a lot about. But donkeys have some interesting symbolism and roles in Christ’s life – and they teach us something about Christ’s character.
The Donkey at Christ’s Birth
Donkeys were common for labor and riding at the time of Christ’s birth. They could work hard and carry heavy, bulky loads for people. They probably weren’t usually considered anything very special – just useful.
It turns out that donkeys are also pretty reliable creatures. They’re known for being stubborn, yes, but it seems that that comes from their need to trust the person they’re with and their strong ability to sense danger. If a donkey thinks it’s going to be hurt, there’s no moving it. But their ability to sense danger makes them protective and trustworthy for carrying valuable loads.
Now, the scriptures don’t actually say that Mary did ride a donkey to Bethlehem. It’s just a popular tradition. However, with the distance to travel to Bethlehem and the commonality of donkeys at the time, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Joseph did use a donkey to carry Mary to Bethlehem. And, since it is widely held tradition that Mary did ride a donkey, I think it’s worth considering the symbolism regardless.
Not only would a donkey have been more readily available than other animals, Joseph also would have been able to trust that the donkey would take care of his wife. He chose an animal that could endure the trip with a heavy load, and do so without much difficulty.
I also think it’s interesting that the animal that was traditionally chosen to carry Mary and the unborn Christ to Bethlehem was an animal that could teach us some things about Christ’s character.
Donkeys, as I’ve already pointed out, are known for being trustworthy. That’s a characteristic of Christ – in fact, Christ is the person we can rely on most. He’s completely trustworthy, and what’s more is that He trusts us too.
Donkeys also are capable of carrying large burdens. If a donkey did carry Mary to Bethlehem, then it would have carried a heavily pregnant woman for days. Even if Mary was quite young (possibly in her early teens), she still would have been a heavy load for a donkey.
This imagery of carrying heavy loads reminds me of this scripture:
28 ¶ Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Matthew 11:28-30, KJV
Even though yokes refer to oxen, it’s the idea that Christ takes up our burdens that I find so interesting here. Many of the burdens that we have in our lives are not light. From loss to illness to sin and so on, our burdens can be almost oppressive at times.
But Christ willingly lifts those burdens. He carries them for long periods and helps us continue forward when we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. And never does He complain about that role He plays in our lives.
These things do help us understand Christ better. But the thing I think would be most interesting about this, if Mary did ride a donkey to Bethlehem, is that Christ would have been carried to the place of His birth on a donkey – just like He was carried to the place of His death on a donkey.
The Donkey at Christ’s Death
Though Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem is more tradition than fact, we do know there was a donkey that carried Christ into Jerusalem at the end of His life. Many attribute Christ riding a donkey into Jerusalem as a sign of His humility and meekness – which is a good interpretation. No one expects a great man to ride on such a small, laboring animal.
But it actually turns out that there was more to Christ’s choosing a donkey than its being a sign of humility. A donkey was once known as a sign of peace and a sign of royalty. By choosing to ride a donkey into Jerusalem, Christ not only signified to everyone watching that He was the long-awaited Messiah, but that He was also the Prince of Peace. He had not come to wage war against the Romans; He had come to free all people from sin and death.
So when we look at Christ riding a donkey, we can see Him as our King. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the symbolism of riding a donkey only reinforces His role and rule. Whether He only rode one into Jerusalem at the end of His life or He was also carried to Bethlehem on a donkey, the fact remains that the donkey stands as a sign of Christ’s royalty, power, and character.
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