Dante, the donkey

Dante, the Donkey (8″ long)

“Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, for I will give you rest.” That is what Jesus would say, one day, and no creature on earth—man or beast—was more deserving of rest than the donkey, which for untold centuries had stoically labored in the service of humankind: hauling baskets of bricks,  bales of hay, cages full of chickens, or just about anything that could be got onto its back, in any combination that would balance. Sometimes the loads were so awkward and heavy, the animal fell down and could not get up. Yet the donkey had hauled these loads up mountains, down steps, through cobbled streets, across barren landscapes, in war or peace—and had been whipped, and starved, and cursed upon its way, and finally left for dead when it could carry no more. Yes, that was the humble, stoical, taciturn donkey, an animal often rebuked as stubborn, but which was in fact perfectly sensible, knowing exactly what it could, and could not do.

Dante had been fortunate. A tall carpenter, Joseph by name, from the poor village of Nazareth, had needed an animal one day to haul both rocks and tree limbs, and happened by a donkey up for auction, a scarred and bony animal with one ear up and one ear down. The owner had wanted three coppers for it; Joseph got it for two. But his satisfaction in the acquistion soon expired, for the animal balked, and bucked, and brayed every twenty paces. Stubborn creature! Only when Joseph had gotten the donkey home did he find a splinter, deep in one hoof. Once Joseph had removed it, however, the animal’s temperament changed entirely. Why, it even broke its tether and came limping after him.

Joseph fed the animal every day, washed it, brushed out the burrs and cockles, trimmed its tail, salved its wounds, scratched under its chin, whispered in its ear, and called it “Dante,” or so it is said. This must be wrong, but why argue with tradition?

In any event, it was this self-same Dante, nursed back to health by Joseph of Nazareth, which would bear Mary, heavy with child, on its back to the stable in Bethlehem.