Flight to Egypt

Saint Anthony explains to us that the real ‘donkey’ at Bethlehem was the physical body of Jesus, in which he bore our sins
December 12 2016 | by

IN THE TRADITIONAL Christmas story, Joseph takes his pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey and finds lodging in a stable. After she gives birth, Joseph takes Mary and the infant Jesus and flees to Egypt to avoid Herod who wants to kill the child. Paintings of this flight show Mary, cradling Christ, sitting on the back of a donkey as Joseph leads them through the wilderness. But scripture mentions no donkey.

Surprised? Most people are. We assume that Joseph, being a poor man, used the poor man’s mode of transportation, a donkey, but we don’t know for sure.

A domesticated member of the horse family, the donkey is descended from the African wild ass. This familiar beast of burden was called an ass until about 1785, when the word donkey, a term of unclear origin, came into use. Humans first domesticated donkeys around 3000 BC and have used them as pack and work animals ever since.


Figure of Jesus


Because Scripture does not mention a donkey in connection with Christmas, neither does Saint Anthony. He does, however, mention a donkey in another homily on the good Samaritan: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’” (Lk 10.30-35).

Father David Mary Engo, founder and Minister General of the Franciscan Brothers Minor, sees the man going from Jerusalem to Jericho as a person’s own soul. The robbers are those damaging people, choices, and experiences that leave a soul half dead, unable to hear or respond to Christ.

Before conversion happens, the soul needs healing. Too busy with other matters, we are like the priest when we know our woundedness, but don’t take time to deal with it. We are like the Levite when we don’t want to undertake the work that healing requires. Like Saint Anthony, Father David sees the Samaritan as a figure of Jesus, the healer. Saint Anthony notes that the word Samaritan means ‘guardian.’ This ‘guardian,’ Anthony says, “is the Lord, who for our sakes was made man, undertook the journey of this life, and came to the wounded man. …[Jesus] became our kinsman by taking on our suffering, and our neighbor by bestowing his mercy” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals II, Messaggero di Sant’ Antonio Editrice, p. 344).

Father David sees Jesus, as the good Samaritan, healing our wounds and pouring his mercy and forgiveness on them, symbolized by the wine and oil. Saint Anthony elaborates. “He bound up his wounds, checking sin by rebuking it. He poured in oil, giving hope to penitents… He poured in wine, inspiring sinners with the fear of punishment” (Sermons II, pp.344-45). In other words, first Jesus comes to the wounded person and rebukes sin, casting it away where it can no longer harm. Then Jesus inspires the person to hope that he will sin no more. He reinforces this hope by reminding the sinner that punishment will follow for future sins.


Donkey as the body


St. Anthony goes further. He likens the beast, that is the donkey, to Christ’s physical body, given to him by the ‘yes’ of his mother Mary. “Be it done unto me according to thy word. ‘Immediately, Christ was conceived of the virgin, fully man in soul and body, even though the outline and structure of his body and limbs could not be discerned’” (Sermons IV, p.167). “His beast is his own flesh, in which he came to us, on which he placed the wounded man, bearing our sins in his body” (Sermons II, p. 345).

Where does Christ, in his physical body, bring us for healing? The Samaritan, placing the half dead man on his beast of burden, brought him to an inn. Through his body, punished because of, and for the redemption of the sinner, Jesus carries the sinner to the Church. “The inn is the Church here on earth, where wayfarers and those returning to the eternal homeland are refreshed. He is taken to the inn, laid on the beast” (Sermons II, p.345).


The two Testaments


Jesus cares for the sinner, “lest the sick man should lose the precepts he had received.” But, just as the Samaritan could not tarry, neither could Christ whose Ascension loomed. Anthony likens the host of the inn to the Apostles to whom Jesus gave “two pence, the two Testaments on which the name and image of the eternal King are inscribed… Then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures [Lk 24.45] so that they might guide the people” (Sermons II, p. 345).

The Samaritan promises the inn keeper that, upon his return, he would repay whatever more was spent in the wounded man’s care. Anthony elaborates some of the many ways in which the Church ‘spends more’ in caring for our souls. We are to follow the example of the good Samaritan and “Do likewise. To show that you truly love your neighbor as yourself, devoutly do whatever you can to relieve his bodily and spiritual needs” (Sermons II, p. 346). Father David reminds us that we can only heal others after we ourselves are healed.

Just as the Samaritan took his beast when he continued his journey, so Christ’s body accompanied him in his Ascension. Saint Francis of Assisi likened his body to a disobedient ass. Anthony likens Christ’s body to an obedient ass.


Soul carrier


Consider that a donkey mostly likely carried the pregnant Virgin to Bethlehem. Then a donkey likely carried the newborn baby in the Virgin’s arms into Egypt. Anthony reveals a mystery. Christ used his physical body as the beast to carry his soul into the world. Fully human, his body needed another beast, a donkey, to actually transport him on earth.

The single Scriptural instance of Jesus riding a donkey is his entry into Jerusalem during his triumphal Palm Sunday procession. Five days later, on the way to Golgotha, Christ’s body was the beast of burden that carried the heavy cross. Traditionally we consider the cross as being made heavy by our sins. However, Saint Anthony assures us that Christ carried our sins from the moment that he was conceived. “His beast is his own flesh, in which he came to us… bearing our sins in his body” (Sermons II, p. 345). The real ‘donkey’ of Bethlehem was the physical body of Jesus.

Updated on December 13 2016