The Feast of the Ass (festum asinorum) was first celebrated in medieval times. This mid-January festival recalled the flight of Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child from Palestine into Egypt. (Matthew 2:13-23 records this event. The three magi, or wise men, warned the Holy Family that King Herod planned to kill the Baby Jesus. An angel has instructed them to do so.) Joseph led a donkey, as Mary and her Child rode during the journey.
The Ass Feast originated as an adjunct to the Feast of Fools (Remember this festival from the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME movie?), and it was first celebrated in 11th Century France. Historians believe the event may have also had roots in Cervulus, a pagan feast. (Many Christian holidays have been linked to pagan festivals, which were adapted to focus on Christian themes. This shielded early Christians from unwanted attention and danger during times of religious persecution.)
During the annual festival, a young virginal girl would ride a donkey through a community to the church. Arriving at the altar, she would dismount. The donkey would be tied by the altar for the service. As the priest delivered his homily, congregants would bray (instead of “Amens”). In later years, wooden donkeys were fashioned and placed by the altar for the holiday proceedings. (Perhaps priests grew tired of soiling their vestments while mucking out the altar.)
Pageants might be performed, focusing on Bible stories including donkeys.
The Feast of Asses vanished during the 15th Century, along with the Feast of Fools.
ASSES IN THE BIBLE
Donkeys feature prominently in Scripture.
Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch and father of the Semitic peoples, owned sheep, oxen, camels, and asses, or donkeys.
In Genesis 16:12, the angel of the Lord tells Abraham’s wife Sarah about her unborn son Ishmael: “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
In Genesis 22, Abraham places his son Isaac on a donkey to carry him to the place of sacrifice, where God provides a ram instead.
In Genesis 42, Joseph has his brother’s donkeys loaded up with food and supplies from Egypt during the famine in Israel.
In Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments warn believers not to covet our neighbor’s donkey or other possessions.
In Exodus 23, the Lord instructs His people about the Sabbath, insisting that even oxen and donkeys be given a day of rest.
Numbers 22 details how Balaam’s donkey spoke aloud to him, when he would listen to no one else.
In Judges 15, Samson the strongman slew the entire Philistine army with a donkey’s jawbone.
In 1 Samuel 25, when David and his men are planning to attack wicked Nabal, Abigail loads a donkey with provisions and intercepts the onslaught. The Lord strikes Nabal dead, and Abigail becomes David’s wife.
Job possessed 500 donkeys before his satanic trial. Afterwards, he owned 1,000.
Throughout Hebrew history, judges and other prominent people ride donkeys. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, he rode a donkey’s colt. This is the event we celebrate annually on Palm Sunday, one week before Easter.
ASSES AND GRACE
Asses, or donkeys, are reliable, gentle, and unpretentious. Although they may be stubborn, a well-trained donkey is a tribute to his master. For this reason, what better symbol could we have for the suffering servant/savior, who left glory behind to submit to human form and execution, in obedience to His Father’s will?
While the Feast of Asses may have stretched the limits of respectability and decorum, the symbolic focus on a beast who bear’s others’ burdens is not to be missed.