Yesterday was Donkey Day, or better, the Feast of “Jackasses” should we use the more technical, archaic English “jack” [for the male of the species such as Jackdaw, Jackrabbit, and so on] and the Latin scientific description asinus, short for its combined form with its high classification, equus asinus.
There is much to be said about this great feast day going back many centuries. There are videos, musical tributes, “liturgies.” But all of that has lost the plot, it seems to me. I think the origins of this ancient feast were obscured by time with the asinine (so to speak) activities of irony that abounded to such a degree that the more serious side was overshadowed.
I’m guessing that the original inspiration for this feast, inviting all the irony and carry-on to celebrate the irony that is so essential to Christianity, goes back to what I’m guessing is an incident which sparked the martyrdom of Jewish boy named Alexamenos (“Defender”) who had converted to Christianity and somehow found himself on the lower South slopes of Monte Palatino, opposite the Roman Forum and Colosseum, overlooking the Circus Maximus, in the Imperial School, studying up on how best to serve the Caesar of the day.
At the time, the chariot races and battle ship matches and such taking place in the Circus Maximus, for which he and his fellow students always had a front row seat, also afforded him a view of what was happening in the central divider island inside the “circus” itself. At regular intervals there were places where Christians were placed, and where they would be made sport of by gladiators until they died, one after the other.
It seems this was too much for little Alexamenos, so indignant, who then spoke of how wrong this was because it is another Jewish fellow, Jesus, God, who standing in our place, and crucified, was put to death for what we deserved because of sin so that He might have the right in His own justice to have mercy on us. Being a Christian was, however, obviously outlawed by the Caesars of the day. It was a blood bath. The classmates of Alexamenos would first mock him, and then, I suppose, see an opportunity to be seen as being loyal to Caesar, they would betray Alexamenos and have him put to death.
The mockery involves the graffito etched into the stone walls of their classroom. That entire bit of the wall was removed when it was relatively recently discovered. A replica was made and placed into a museum just a stone’s throw from the Imperial School, the Antiquarium del Palatino. Yours truly took a picture of that, which is reproduced on the top of this post.
The graffito depicts a little boy worshiping a crucified donkey. Other nations held that the donkey was the national symbol of Israel, the Hebrews, the Jews. Jesus, the “King of the Jews” as Pontius Pilate had written, was to be depicted as a donkey.
The mockery is rather incisive. But Jesus came precisely to receive that mockery, to be that donkey, indeed, as Saint Paul says in his short hand, to become sin for us, standing in our place, the innocent for the guilty. If we have no sense of irony, we have no faith.
G.K. Chesterton, like St Augustine before him, had a great sense of irony. He has this about the greatness of donkeys.
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Or did you not know that donkeys were always with the Holy Family:
- On the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem
- At the manger when Jesus was born
- On the trip from Bethlehem to Egypt
- On the trip from Egypt all the back to Nazareth
- On the trip into Jerusalem for Jesus to be crucified