The worldly reason might have been a practical one: a donkey certainly would have been a readily-available animal. And the symbolic reason might seem apparent enough: what more humble animal than a donkey to underscore Jesus’ own humility? What more telling way to demonstrate to the crowd that they might hail him as a king, but that his own trappings of kingship were the very things of their own everyday use? This is as far as explanations usually go. But is it possible to go a little further, to dig a little deeper, to discover that there is more to this tableau of humility and triumph than at first seems apparent?
A carving which was discovered on a pillar in Rome depicts, of all things, a crucified donkey. This rough carving, which dates from the second century, might at first seem mocking: perhaps the equivalent of a political cartoon of its day. But the image points us towards a mystic teaching of Gnosticism, in which the donkey is symbolic of the human ego. And a fitting symbol it is! Like the obstinate and stubborn donkey, the ego can be unruly. We might wish to go in one direction, but the donkey (and the ego) insists on asserting its own will, on telling us that it is the most important thing there is, and its will carries us along with it.
Putting the ego in its place, triumphing over its illusory dominance, is a striving common to various beliefs. In Zen Buddhism it is symbolised by the bull, which in its temperament is seen as being much like the wilful donkey. To ride the bull is therefore the embodiment of subjugating the pompous ego, of achieving a necessary detachment from the forest of illusions which clamour for our attention and insist to us that they are real.
But riding the bull, riding the donkey, is not the final phase of the process. In these mystic teachings we are told that only with the complete defeat of the ego will true transcendence find place. The bull will itself be seen as an illusion and will dissolve and vanish. The donkey will be sacrificed on the cross of worldly pretence - and the man as well. For the supreme triumph is not the ride, but the moment of ultimate transcendence that will surely follow.
Painting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842
Cherokee basketweave cross by Baskauta
The passage in scripture can be found in Matthew 21:1-7