THY CROSS I’LL CARRY: The legend of the Jerusalem Donkey
Published 2:00 am Saturday, April 4, 2015
Every season had its legends, and Easter is no exception.
Although legends are not based on fact, they often become a part of the lore of the season and add special significance to it.
The Legend of the Christian donkey or the Jerusalem Donkey has become a part of the story of Easter. Although it is, perhaps, just a story about the donkey that was Jesus’ mount on Palm Sunday, it has a message that is worth hearing at Easter, said Jim Powell, pastor of Tennille and Union Hill United Methodist churches.
“We all know that a donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem and on the trip to Egypt,” Powell said. “Jesus rode a donkey to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the significance of Jesus’ riding a donkey was that he was coming in peace.
“The Nubian donkey has a cross on its back because it was said that this breed of donkeys carried Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.”
Powell said, according to legend, the donkey knew what that Jesus was facing a trial and much suffering. Seeing the tragic event of Jesus’ crucifixion, the donkey wished that he had been able to carry the cross for Jesus and bear his burden. The donkey could not bear the sight of the cross and turned its head away until it was “finished” because of its love for Jesus.
“According to the legend, in reward for the loyal and humble love of the donkey for Jesus, the Lord caused the shadow of the cross to fall across the back of the Jerusalem donkey,” Powell said. “Ever since, the Jerusalem donkey has carried a sign of the love of God for all to see.”
The cross on the back of each Jerusalem donkey is different. No two are alike. Each donkey is defined by the cross they bear on their back.
Another legend tells of a poor farmer near Jerusalem who had a donkey too small to do any work so he planned to kill the donkey.
His children begged for the donkey’s life and asked their father to tie the donkey to a tree on the road to Jerusalem and, perhaps, someone would take it.
That’s what the farmer did, Powell said. When he was approached by two men who said Jesus of Nazareth was in need of the donkey, he gladly gave the worthless donkey to them.
Jesus led his followers into Jerusalem riding on the back of a small, common donkey.
That donkey followed Jesus to Calvary and stood in the shadow of the cross and the shadow of the cross fell on the back on the donkey. These special donkeys have borne the sign on the cross since day.
Powell said, no matter which story one believes or even if the stories are not believed, the fact that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem fulfilled a prophecy spoken 500 year before, that the Messiah would ride a donkey into Jerusalem.
“The stories, the legends, are reminders to all of us of the donkey’s gift to Jesus,” he said.
Powell said another Easter legend that most Southerners know and appreciate is the Legend of the Dogwood.
“The story is that, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the dogwood was about the size of an oak tree,” he said. “Because it was a large and strong tree, it was chosen as the timber for the cross. The dogwood tree was sad to be used for such a cruel thing. Jesus realized the tree’s sorrow and commanded that, from that day forward, the branches of the dogwood would twist and the trunk would never grow big enough and strong enough to be used as a cross.”
Powell said the blossoms of the dogwood tree are also a reminder of Jesus’ crucifixion. “The flowers of the dogwood form a cross, with two long and two short petals,” he said.
“On the edge of each petal you can see brown, rusty nail prints that are stained with red,” Powell said.
“In the middle of the flower, there’s a crown of thorns. Each flower on the dogwood tree is a reminder of the suffering of Jesus on the cross.”
There are other Easter legends, but Powell said the Jerusalem donkey and the dogwood tree are visible reminders, right here in Pike County, of the price Jesus paid for the sins of the world.