|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).