There are many beautiful works of art depicting Mary riding a donkey as Joseph led them to Bethlehem. I never questioned whether or not Mary rode a donkey on her journey with Joseph. However, as I was researching the symbolism of Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem and Christ riding a donkey as he entered Jerusalem in the Triumphal Entry, I realized that the scriptures don’t actually say that she did. She could have. It is likely that she did given it was the popular mode of transportation for people of her day and circumstances. But we really don’t know. We may never know, but we can get closer to experience what it was like to arrive in Bethlehem all those centuries ago by taking part in Israel group tours and visiting some of the holy sites for ourselves.
Nevertheless, it is interesting that it is commonly accepted. And so I wanted to delve into the symbolism of Christ riding the donkey into Jerusalem and what that may mean for our common belief that Mary rode upon a donkey too. In Egypt the donkey is a symbol for the god of evil. In Hebrew writings the donkey or ass symbolized the devil, evil, harm or non-covenant people (Lost Language of Symbolism, 307-308). What does the Son of God riding upon something that symbolized evil mean?
The answer is two fold in Christ riding upon the donkey/ass. First, it symbolized that He would overcome all evil even the devil himself. This He did with his sinless life though being sorely tempted by even Satan himself. By riding into Jerusalem in this manner He foreshadows His triumph over physical and spiritual death and His ability to grant salvation.
Secondly, riding upon the ass represented that He was the God of the Jews and Gentiles, “Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also” (Romans 3:29). In addition, the gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles as well as be “blessed and numbered among the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 10:18). The word Gentile means “the nations.” It designates people of non-Israelite lineage but also nations that are without the gospel (Bible Dictionary, 679).
He is the Lord to each one of us whether we know it or not. Christ did not come for the saint but for the sinner. He is your Savior whether or not you accept Him as such. He loves you whether or not you love Him. He waits for you even when you stray. He is merciful and makes it possible for each one of us to receive His salvation in one way or another. To Him we are numbered. He knows us.
And so Mary riding upon the back of a donkey pregnant with the babe Jesus is a beautiful foreshadowing of what was to come. So whenever I see Mary riding upon the donkey I think of the power and triumph of Christ entering Jerusalem upon a donkey with the crowds of people throwing their clothes and palm fronds in His path honoring Him as a King proclaiming,
“Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9).
These beautiful words are similar to the refrain of heavenly hosts heralding the birth of Jesus,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
In pondering these symbols a conversation with a dear friend of mine came to mind as we talked about her approaching birth. She could feel the darkness surrounding her, trying to rob her of the joy that should accompany the birth of a child. Knowing the challenges she had faced in the past I was reminded that she had overcome them. The darkness did not beat her. She had triumphed. So if you find yourself pregnant or with a little one during this sacred time, or struggling in anyway, I hope you know that Christ will help you triumph over the evil. It is not unusual to feel weighed down physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as you overcome the evil of the world and choose to give the Gift of Life. May you seek to be ever closer to Him and feel his love surround you as you bravely move forward to your “Bethlehem.”
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27
To read The Gift of Giving Life buy your copy at your local LDS bookstore, or buy it on Amazon, where we have it at holiday pricing right now!