When I was in high school, I was given a large French travel poster with a color reproduction of Broederlam’s “The Flight into Egypt.” Mary, holding baby Jesus, is in the center, with Joseph off to the side. There is also a fourth figure: the donkey on which Mary is sitting. I can’t help wondering what the donkey was thinking. It might have been something like this:
“What a nice, peaceful life I used to have, working for Joseph and his family: trips to the market, trips to the lumber yard – small loads, short, days, long nights. Then came that long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem: what a change that was! Long hours on a dusty road, and when we finally arrived at a stable, there were other animals crowding my space and making so much noise I couldn’t sleep. There wasn’t much to eat, either, especially with the best straw being used as a bed for the baby that suddenly appeared. I sure got nervous when I heard wings fluttering just above the roof, and voices singing, too; but then some shepherds arrived and acted as if everything was all right, so I settled down again as best I could. No sooner were we relocated to a house of our own than along came three tall men in long robes, with their servants running around and their hunch-back animals pawing the ground outside. The stuff they delivered didn’t look very good to eat, but Mary and Joseph seemed to think they were pretty good presents.
“Now here we are on another long trip. We don’t seem to be headed back to Nazareth, so goodness knows where we’ll end up. It’s a good thing Mary’s not so overweight any more, for she brought that new baby along and the total weight on my back is just as bad as before. It’s a good thing for me that Joseph likes to stop and have a drink fairly often, for that’s the only time I get any rest. I sure hope we get back to normal in Nazareth before very much longer.”
We probably have more in common with the poor donkey than with any of the other figures in the picture. Like him, we find sooner or later that the effect of Jesus’ birth on our lives is to disrupt the familiar, predictable pattern and to present new and unforeseen challenges. Like the donkey on the road to Egypt, we don’t know where we are going and would often like to turn back. But just as the donkey has been immortalized by Broederlam and the many other painters of this subject, so we are offered the gift of everlasting life. And, like the donkey, we also have Jesus’ company along the way.