the donkey

a reflection by Betsy Wiest, SSJ Agregee and Social Justice Coordinator

In a small town called Nazareth, a young 14-year old girl named Mary responded “yes” when an angel told her she would become the mother of our Lord. Mary was betrothed, but not yet married to Joseph when she learned she was with child. Although she had tremendous faith, I am sure the reality of being single and pregnant at that time was scary. However, the angel reassured her with a plan; she was to visit Elizabeth in Jerusalem.

Mary, traveled nearly 120 miles on a donkey to visit Elizabeth — at a time when travel was not safe to travel. A donkey can move, on average, 10 miles a day, which made it a 12-day trip. She arrived safely and was welcomed by Elizabeth. After a three-month stay, Mary returned safely to Nazareth, once again, by donkey. 

Joseph takes Mary as his wife, and they begin their life together when Caesar decrees that every man must return to the city of his origin and register. Mary is close to term, but the couple, with the aid of the donkey, traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, another 12-day trip.

Unfortunately, when they arrive, there is no room in any of the inns, and Mary is so close to giving birth. In desperation, Joseph finds shelter for them in a stable where the King of Kings is born to an ordinary, actually an extraordinary young woman and her husband. The daytime temperatures in Bethlehem would likely have been between 60-70 degrees. At night, however, the temperatures could be as low as 40-50, much too cold for a newborn. The stable did not have heat, but there were animals, including cows, sheep, and, of course, the donkey. The animals’ breath warmed the air for Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child.

In a dream, Joseph is warned that King Herod ordered every male child under age two slaughtered and that he should leave in the night, taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they would be safe. With the donkey, they fled traveling down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, through Gaza, across the Sinai Desert, and into Egypt. After more than a month, the donkey safely delivered them to Egypt.

A few years later, when it was safe to return, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus set out again with the donkey on the 400-mile trip back to Galilee.

Fast forward about 33 years. Jesus has been ministering to His people, and his time on Earth is drawing to a close. He knows it is time to fulfill His mission and bear the weight of our sins on His shoulders. He rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, on a donkey, as people worship and celebrate Him. 

Aside from Mary, the only other living creature who was present to Jesus from before His birth to His death was the donkey. 

I travel a lot, and as I have gotten older, I find that travel, especially in a car, is anxiety-inducing. I asked Fr. Jerry Simmons if he would give me a travel blessing in hopes that my anxiety may decrease. He did, but it wasn’t the blessing I expected. He asked for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to guide me safely to my destination. He then requested that the donkey ride in the back seat with me because if the donkey (whom he named “Harold”) was present, I was assured of safe travel. 

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the donkey and have appreciated his quiet presence in my life. You see, we all travel through life. Lately, I’ve been asking the donkey to be present in whatever I am facing because if he could assist the Holy Family, he can surely be of assistance to me.

Think about the donkey, the quiet, unassuming animal, a source of support and strength that was there. As you move forward in your lives, my wish for you is to feel the presence of the Holy Family alive in you but also to feel the quiet strength of the donkey who can help you safely along the way. May God bless and keep you in His loving arms today and always.

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