Tomorrow is Epiphany, the day, as tradition has it, that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem and beheld the child of Mary and Joseph. This means that they were still there, sharing the stable with their donkey, which in manger scenes is usually depicted as humility and sweetness incarnate. I never used to question the accuracy of that rendering.
Then I got a donkey and learned that they have many fine traits, but that the humility of the critters has nothing to do with it. Mine came with a suitably biblical name, Jeremy.
My friends worried. "What can a donkey be for ?" I didn't know. Very few people do know much about donkeys, because they live so long and because we're still blinded by our inheritance of a horse culture in which people laugh at the aphorism, "A donkey is a horse translated into Dutch."
My horse, Peppy, doesn't know how wrong written Dutch looks to a native speaker of English, but he knew right away how wrong that donkey looked. If he had known Chesterton's poem in which the donkey says the part about "With monstrous head and sickening cry / And ears like errant wings, / The devil's walking parody / On all four-footed things," he would no doubt have agreed, although he would have been unprepared to assent to the feeling at the end where the donkey says the bit about his "far fierce hour and sweet; / There was a shout about my ears, / And palms before my feet."
Peppy, on first seeing Jeremy enter his domain, reeled about the pasture, shouting about things devilish and unnatural. Jeremy watched this display with interest. When Peppy slowed down, Jeremy wiggled his left ear, thus eliciting from Peppy a vigorous performance of the passage in Job about the triumphant horse who "Saith among the trumpets, Ha ha." That narrative quieted down too, eventually, and Jeremy wiggled both ears while sliding one forefoot cunningly along the ground, to see what the horse would do about that. A similar scene ensued in which Peppy uttered epic things about horses of wrath and instruction. Jeremy spent the next few hours thus investigating Western tradition since the Middle Ages.
Then, quite suddenly, I saw that things had changed. Jeremy had become Peppy's donkey, and Peppy had become Jeremy's horse. I realized this when Jeremy started having opinions about my having Peppy do things he didn't want to do.
They have their "far fierce hours and sweet," those two. A kind of rodeo occurs at the change of day, morning or evening, when the breeze and drama of the shift from light to dark in the inland Southwest comes up. Terrible battles ensue, donkey and horse both careening around wildly, making vicious assaults on each other, Jeremy bringing Peppy to his delighted knees. No one gets hurt. "Can they do that and not be laughing?" a friend asked.
The game obviously began that day, all those years ago, when Peppy first saw this "horse translated into Dutch." It took a donkey to teach the terrible horse of wrath and instruction to laugh at both, without losing them. This is the sort of thing I think about when I hear of the humility and sweetness of donkeys.
I also used to think about it when I drove any part of the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is not even now one of your more straightforward roads. With or without paving, it's the sort of road I'd want a donkey for rather than a horse. The same presence of mind that confounded Peppy is useful in confounding malefactors, too.
Also, if I were pregnant with the Son of God, as human beings are almost exactly half the time, I would want with me a creature who would teach me to laugh with irreverent abandon at my own horses of wrath and instruction. That is a laughter it takes strength to meet. It is the sound of the holiness of donkeys, and that's what you need one for on your way through to Bethlehem, and through other hazards.