Thursday, April 14, 2011

Upon how many donkeys did Christ ride into Jerusalem?, or How Jesus saves both Gentiles and Jews. On the Gospel for the Palm Sunday Procession


Riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

Palm Sunday Procession, Matthew 21:1-11
The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them.
Some modern so-called biblical “scholars” have noted that, while St. Matthew speaks of both an ass and a colt (that is, both the adult and the foal donkey), the other Gospel writers specify only the colt. These men, considering themselves wiser perhaps than the Spirit who inspired the sacred text, have then proceeded to conclude that St. Matthew (or whosoever wrote this Gospel) erred in his interpretation of the prophecy of Zechariah, BEHOLD THY KING will come to thee, the just and savior: he is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass (Zechariah 9:9).
While it may at first seem (so these scholars claim) that Zechariah refers to two separate animals, the prophet is in fact simply making use of a popular Hebrew literary device according to which a line is repeated in order to emphasize, rather than to duplicate, the meaning. It would seem then that poor St. Matthew was not so keen as Sts. Mark and Luke, who mention only one animal. “Why,” these wise men say, “imagine the sight of Jesus riding into Jerusalem stretched out across two donkeys!”
If, however, one were to approach the text with a spirit of humility and reverence, and with the help of the Catholic commentatorial tradition, much meaning could be mined from St. Matthew’s apparently odd formulation.

The use of both an ass and a colt
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide thinks it reasonable to conclude that Christ rode upon both the ass and the colt, though of course not at the same time but in succession. The Jesuit scholar states that it is most likely that the Savior rode the ass down the Mount of Olives and up the hill to the entrance of Jerusalem, but that, when he entered the Holy City, he sat upon the colt.
The primary reason Fr. Cornelius gives for this transitioning between the two beasts is that “the colt perchance was not strong enough to bear a rider in the descent and ascent of the mountain.” The colt, of course, was smaller than the ass (being its foal) and therefore was likely too weak to carry the Christ.
On the other hand, “the ass was not so becoming for the entry into the city.” Therefore, the Lord sat upon the ass’ colt when he came to the City itself. And this is corroborated by the other Gospels which specify that the animal upon which the Savior sat as he came into Jerusalem was a colt.
Another interpretation of the colt and the ass
The Navarre Bible Commentary, on the other hand, interprets St. Matthew as implying not that Christ rode upon both of the animals, but that he rode solely upon the colt while he led also the ass.
“The other two Synoptic Gospels limit themselves to giving the key fact of Jesus’ messianic entry into the Holy City mounted on the colt (Mk 11:2; Lk 19:30). St. Matthew sees in the fact that the colt is with the ass a further detail of the prophecy [of Zechariah], which refers to the colt being the foal of an ass (that seems to be why the ass is referred to throughout the account, the ass being with the colt, although Jesus was mounted only on the colt).”
The mystical signification of the two beasts
This particular historical detail (of the colt being accompanied by the ass) gives rise to a particularly insightful mystical interpretation. After explaining the historical circumstances which gave rise to the use of these two beasts, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide writes:
“But it was chiefly because of the mystery implied that [Christ] willed to make use of both the beasts, that He might signify that He should reign not over those only to whom He had been promised, i.e., the Jews, but over the two sorts of people of which the world is made up – the Jews, accustomed to the yoke of the Mosaic law, who were represented by the ass; and the Gentiles, living up to this time without the Law of God, and who were denoted by the colt. ‘For, as sinners,’ says Auctor Imperfecti, ‘are the horses of the devil, so are the saints said to be the horses of Christ, although Christ loves mild asses, rather than fierce and proud horses.’”
The Gentiles are mystically signified by the colt, while the Jews are represented by the ass. According to Lapide, the Lord begins by riding upon the ass, but enters Jerusalem upon the colt; for the Gentiles would be the first to receive Christ as their King, although the Jews were the first to receive the Promise. Still, the ass too is led into the Holy City by the Good Jesus, for all Israel will be saved (cf. Romans 11:26).

6 comments:

Agnes said...

Dear Father,

If you are interested, St Francis de Sales has also written something on this topic of the ass and the colt. It is too long to quote here but it can be accessed on this site: http://www.oblates.org/spirituality/sundays_salesian/sermons_for_lent.php

It is the sermon for Palm Sunday ("the Eleventh Sermon: Humility and Obedience") and the relevant section starts on page 9 of the Word document. (Sermons were long in those days!)

Nick said...

In Judaism, the donkey and the colt refer to Jews and Gentiles, but not in a nice way. Jews saw themselves as better than Gentiles and saw Gentiles as their slaves. That's what I got from the rabbinic writings.

Calixtus said...

Oh? Hmm. How many theologians can dance on the head of a pin? With the exception of astronomy/astrology, virtually all of the sciences are relatively recent. The art of theology is older than Christianity. However, the 'science' of theology, as some are wont to see it, is of latter years, but in existence for centuries. I would seem that it is getting a bit harder to come up with something new, new enough to be able to call oneself a professional theologian. I appears to have reached the state where a principal goal is to simply meticulously dismantle the bible until there will be nothing left but a pile of letters on the floor. The scholarly books on theology that I have (doggedly) read only passingly mention such things as faith and the like, but rather, are essentially pseudo-science that is not particularly helpful for the faithful. Listen, I thought up this little ditty on my own: 'A PHd is (an intelligent and hard working)person who spends a lot of time learning more and more about less and less. A senior PHd is someone who knows very little about not very much. A truly successful theologian is one who knows a lot about nothing. Keep it coming Doctors.

Reginaldus said...

Calixtus,
Those who love the Lord will read the Bible over and over, seeking to savor its sweetness and learn from its every word.
Those who believe that the Scriptures are the "Word of God" will consider each word carefully, with love and devotion.
This is the practice of the Fathers of the Church and the Scholastic Doctors -- it is a practice which has been lost (to some extent) in modern times.

You will scoff and you will whine -- but if you had the love of God within you, the Spirit would have led you to cherish the Holy Books, to pray with them, to read them carefully, and to find in them your nourishment.

Go back to the Fathers and read their commentaries ... perhaps there is still some small love in your soul ...

[Here is my little ditty, in response: About that which we love, we speak most carefully; and to the one who loves the Scriptures, there is nothing tedious in the details, but these are jewels most precious.]

Anonymous said...

He sat upon both of them>>>>>>>>>

Martin said...

Funny, I was looking for a short remark from Sacred page to the effect of, "oh, a colt and an ass, I get you're fulfilling the prophecy". Ideas I found this older, longer post

http://www.thesacredpage.com/2010/03/why-palm-branches-and-why-donkey-jesus.html

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