“We carry the Christ into the world of our time.”
(Canon Dr. Richard LeSueur)
In looking over a vast array of images for a Christmas Greeting this year, I was particularly drawn to this one – a donkey tethered to a pile of rocks on some hillside in the Land of the Holy One. The photo was taken by Canon Richard LeSueur, a Canadian priest who is renowned as a lecturer at St. George’s College in Jerusalem and as a guide for hundreds and hundreds of people on pilgrimage to the Land of Jesus’ Birth, Death and Resurrection.
That lone donkey brings to mind the words of the prophet Zechariah concerning the coming of the Messiah,
“Rejoice greatly, o daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, o daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
Triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Reflecting on that text, I find myself recalling the census decreed by the Emperor Augustus and overseen by Quirinius the Governor (Luke 2:1-2). Among the hundreds of people on the move are Mary and Joseph. (Luke 2:4-5) The very sight of them on route to be registered moves me to remember the lovely medieval French carol, “The Friendly Beasts” sung with such delight by children and adults alike. One by one, each of the animals speaks of what they offer to the Child.
“I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown,
I carried his Mother up hill and down,
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town,
I said the donkey all shaggy and brown.”
I see Mary nursing her Child contented in manger to lie. I see Joseph guarding them with a quiet protective love. Once again, I am enveloped by the holiness of this night, the song of the angels, and the coming of the shepherds “to see this thing that has come to pass”. (Luke 2:15) Deeply immersed in Luke’s lovely narrative of The Nativity of Jesus I yearn to linger here, singing with countless others, “O come, let us adore him”.
From the corner of my eye, I am aware of the donkey tethered not far from the manger. Then I find myself being drawn into Mathew’s narrative of The Nativity. Once again, I am enthralled by the coming of the magi, their homage of the Christ Child and their sacred gifts of mystic meaning. I remember that “warned in a dream not to return to Herod they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12) I remember Herod’s fury and his slaughter of innocent children and the terrible wailing because they were no more.” (Matthew 2: 16-18)
I remember too, how Joseph had been warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and to remain there until the angel of the Lord would tell them it was safe to return. (Matthew 2:13) We know the image well, – Joseph leading the donkey upon whose back Mary sits holding her child close to her heart. It is the subject of some of the world’s most renowned art. By the time they return from Egypt and settle in Nazareth, I imagine the child himself might now be helping Joseph to lead the donkey.
Some thirty-three years later, Jesus will send two of his disciples into a village called Bethphage at the Mount of Olives to untie a donkey and a colt with her and bring them to him. (Matthew 21:2) If anyone were to question them or their motives, they were to simply say “The Lord has need of them.” (Matthew 21:3) We know the scene well, – Jesus entering the Holy City riding on a donkey. The words Zechariah spoke centuries before are fulfilled. “Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9) This trek would take Jesus to the offering of himself upon the Cross for the sins of the whole world. As often as I look at a donkey, and see in its hair the cross that spans its shoulders and the length of its spine I am deeply moved.
What a photo, what images it calls to mind!
And what a text too!
“We carry the Christ into the world of our time.”
It invites me to recall how Mary carried Jesus into the world of her time, how Joseph and Simeon and Anna did too; and Mary Magdalene and John and Peter and Paul and all the apostles. It invites me to recall the witness of the martyrs, unwavering in their carrying of the name and gospel of Christ. It moves me to remember men and women of every time in history who have carried Christ on their lips and in their manner of living, in their worship and in their every good work revealing the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.
Not unlike other times in history ours is fraught with political turmoil that is unsettling, oppression that forces many people to flee in the hope of refuge in other lands, economic disparity that leaves many in extreme poverty. Our world is wounded by so much violence and so many wars. It is marred by crimes against humanity and atrocities against the earth itself. It is a world in need of so much healing and reconciliation. It yearns for that justice which flows from the very heart of God, announced in the teaching of the prophets and in the gospel of his dear Son.
Into this world we are called to carry the Christ and his promised reign of grace and peace among all peoples. May this call give us pause to think about the work of the Church in the name of Him whose Nativity we celebrate.
In LeSueur’s photo, there is one more detail that grabs my attention. It is the brilliance of the sun. Clearly it is rising and by mid-day, nothing shall be hidden from its light nor its heat. Every cavern of the earth feels it. The back of the donkey feels it. The faces of all the peoples of the earth feel it. It is a powerful sign of the reign of Him of whom we sing,
“Hail, the heaven born Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings.”
(Hymn 138, Common Praise)
With prayers for a Holy Christmas and Blessings for the New Year,
Fred J. Hiltz
Archbishop and Primate
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