Sunday, January 23, 2011

Festival of the Ass

I came across this strange festival in medieval Church, the “festum asinarium” (Festival of the Ass), which was celebrated mainly in France. Although considered a harmless festival in memory of Mary's flight into Egypt, it was celebrated in a somewhat curious manner which might easily have given rise to misunderstandings. A hymn that was sung at this festival is as follows:

From the furthest Eastern clime,
Came the ass in olden time,
Comely sturdy for the road,
Fit to bear the heavy load.

In Beauvais, the ass procession went right into the church. At the conclusion of each part (Introitus, Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) of the high mass that followed, the whole congregation brayed, that is, they all went 'Y-a' like a donkey ('hac modulatione hinham concludebantur'). A codex dating apparently from the eleventh century says: 'At the end of the mass, instead of the words "Ite missa est", the priest shall bray three times (ter hinhamabit), and instead of the words "Deo gratias", the congregation shall answer "Y-a" (hinham) three times.'

This makes one to stop and think why the Church should adopt this rather strange liturgy and whether it did have a deeper significance. This takes us to the episode of Balaam and his disobedience of Yahweh in the Book of Numbers. To recapitulate, I will reproduce the events here.

Balaam, the Diviner in the Book of Torah, is approached by the kings of Median to come and curse the Israelites. (Note this is at the very last stages of forty years in the desert coming out of Egypt).
In this episode, the donkey carrying Balaam sees the angel of Yahweh and refuses to move and is punished by Balaam. But later Balaam sees the angel once his donkey is bestowed with the power to speak and tell him the situation. Though persuaded three times by Balak, the Midian King, to curse Israel, Balaam prophesises a blessing for Israel and says that these words have been put into his mouth by Yahweh.

A careful analysis will reveal two reciprocal events. The first is an event out of Egypt into Israel and the second which is flight of Mary and the child into Egypt out of Israel. In both events there is an intervention and blessing by Yahweh.

Carl Jung, the father of depth psychology, identifies Jerusalem with Ignorance, a sacred geography dominated by rituals and rules. In his memorable work “The Seven Sermons to the Dead” the very opening line in the first sermon is: “The dead came back from Jerusalem where they did not find what they were seeking…” The spiritually dead are seeking the higher wisdom from Basilides, in Alexandria in Egypt, where the East and the West meets. Alexandria was the centre of Buddhism, Egyptian spirituality and the Gnostic tradition which based its teaching on inner wisdom. These episodes, at their deeper most level, reveal the movement of consciousness to a higher plenum. Christ was born of the Spirit and hence his consciousness was pure, yet it needed an ambience of wisdom, a place where East and West meets. This really means that where all dichotomies are removed and Christ is guided by the Spirit to blossom in the pure consciousness of the Father in the land of Egypt.

As the hymn in the Holy Mass on the ‘Festival of the Ass’ says the ass is from the East, which is the seat of Spiritual wisdom. In both the episode of Balaam and flight into Egypt, the ass travelled from the East. While the ass is identified as a physical load-bearing animal and hence the gross body, it is given special powers to transport not only the physicality of existence but also the individual consciousness from a lower level to a higher level.

14th January was celebrated as the “festum asinarium”, hence this post.

Love to you all

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