Fr Hugh O’Donnell is a poet and ministers with the Salesian community in the parish of Sean McDermott Street in Dublin. He shares the following Advent reflection with us:
We still call it Palm Sunday the day on which the donkey who first appears in a Bethlehem stable is recast walking in the Jerusalem parade amid cheering fans.
Which reminds me of another. This one placed centre stage in a painting by Orazio Gentileschi whose large head appears above the wall where the exhausted family are resting on their flight into Egypt; Joseph stretched out on the ground and the baby suckling. It’s as if the artist could be saying ‘don’t forget the one who carries them’.
As a ‘beast of burden’ the ass reminds us that Jesus, too, will be sent packing – ‘not my problem; his kind don’t belong here anyway’. He goes to his death as one whom nobody is prepared to stand up for. ‘Then they came for the Jews’, wrote Martin Niemöller, ‘and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew’.
To a Father who notices the fall of a sparrow, the ass is more than ‘a dumb beast’. He, too, is loved by the Father who suffers, in some way, with all his creation, including the animals we lord it over, oblivious of how they are mistreated in a food production system stretching from birth-pen to abattoir.
But Brother Donkey is an essential part of the story and well-chosen to accompany the one who ‘emptied himself’ on our behalf; raising every creature in the process – ‘even the fleeting life of the tiniest’ – to the dignity of fellow-pilgrims, their standing in God’s affection assured.