When I was growing up, a trip to the seaside meant buckets and spades, sandcastles in the sand, fishing nets, for catching shrimps in the rockpools, ice cream, and late in the afternoon, before loading up the car for home, if we were very good and our mother was in a particularly relaxed mood after all of the sun and salty goodness, a ride on the beach donkeys.
The little donkeys – some young, some old but small – plied their trade on every tourist beach in England. Usually, there would be about half a dozen of them, wearing colourful straw hats and blankets. They usually looked a bit grumpy – think Eeyore, the chronically depressive donkey from Winnie the Pooh. Their attendant was equally taciturn; he would be a man of indeterminate age and few words, with a look of the Roma Gipsy. For the equivalent of about a quarter, a child would be hoisted across a grumpy grey donkey and bounce across the sand and back for about five or ten minutes while their mother looked on in terror (our mother did not approve of the donkeys, but we loved them.)
This is the image that I have in my mind’s eye whenever I read this prophecy of Zechariah, whether here on a summer’s weekend, or in the snow of early spring, on Palm Sunday: the slow, silent, long-suffering beach donkeys and their childish burdens. Not the noble, elegant humility of the silhouetted donkey on the Christmas cards; but a truly humble, humbled and humbling, scraggly, shabby, scruffy little donkey, beast of burden and the plaything of children.