The header for Holy Souls Hermitage blog. If you look closely, you will see a crucified jackass. In the full version, you’ll see young Alexamenos, surely a Jewish convert and martyr, likewise being mocked by his fellow Imperial students, at a time when it was the sport of the day in Rome to kill Catholics like himself. This is a graffito found on the Palatine dating back to the time of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Alexamenos is a protagonist in an ecclesiastical thriller I wrote some years ago, all about the murderous intrigue of interreligious politics. Yikes!
In fine Missae sacerdos, versus ad populum, vice Ite, Missa est, ter hinhannabit: populus vero, vice Deo Gratias, ter respondebit, Hinham, hinham, hinham.
At the end of Mass, the priest, having turned to the people, instead of Ite missa est, brays three times; the people, in place of Deo Gratias, respond, Hinham, hinham, hinham.
I did not follow these rubrics, nor did I have a congregation. At least the rubrics presume that one is facing ad orientem for the Mass! The “feast” commemorates the flight into Egypt, an exile in which a donkey was most important. Donkey’s are always in with the Holy Family. Always.
I do like the idea behind this feast of the jackass. It’s all very Chestertonian. If you’ve never read it, it’s well worth the read:
This is the donkey that is found at the base of Holy Souls Mountain, a palestinian donkey, of course, what with that cross on his back.
“The jackass”* by G.K. Chesterton
When fishes flew and forests walked and figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood, then surely I was born
With monstrous head and sickening cry and ears like errant wings
The devil’s walking parody of all four footed things
The tattered outlaw of the earth, of ancient crooked will
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb; I keep my secret still
Fools! For I also had my hour, one far fierce hour and sweet
There was a shout about my ears and palms before my feet
* See Zechariah 9,9 and John 12,12-16. Original title: “The Donkey.”
Saint Augustine’s jackass encouragement
When I was a chaplain in Lourdes, a very wonderful reader from Minnesota had an Orthodox artist paint this up for me. That’s Saint Augustine holding his restless-until-it-rests-in-God heart, on fire with ardent love of God and neighbor. He is speeding along the Way, being carried by a jackass. Saint Augustine is famous for having said these encouraging words: “Asinus es, sed Christum portas!” (You are a jackass, but you carry Christ!).
Alexamenos and Jesus as the Jackass
This is edited a bit so that you can see the etchings a bit better.
This is a picture of the third century Roman graffito, etchings which are almost invisible in the original wall, which is surely why the graffito has lasted for so many centuries. Archaeological remains can be seen on Monte Palatino, Rome, Italy. The graffito was on part of a wall which had been salvaged from the Imperial School for slave boys on the south-western slope of the Palatine Hill during the 1800s. I took many pictures of this graffito!
Greek words had been scratched into the wall along with a drawing of Christ as a crucified jackass, and as the recipient of the worship of a boy named Alexámenos. The graffito dates to the persecution of Catholics by the Romans in the mid-third century. The words ΑΛΕΞΑΜΕΝΟΣ ΣΕΒΕΤΕ ΘΕΟΝ, meant Alexámenos says ‘Worship ye God!’ or, because of the artist’s poor orthography, Alexámenos worships God, so that he wanted to write ΣΕΒΕΤΑΙ ΘΕΟΝ.
Alexámenos – the name means Defender (The One Who Is Defending)– may have been a Jewish slave, who became a Catholic, and who was evangelising his fellow slaves. He risked his life by telling the others to worship Christ, at least with his own example. The response of one of the slaves — drawing such a graffito — shows that Alexámenos may well have been put to death for this evangelization, as were so many at the time, one after the other. It is even most probable that he is a martyr, perhaps put to death by the Emperor Valerian. Rome’s Palatine Hill overlooks the Colosseum, built by Jewish slaves, the Circus Maximus, which directly faces the Imperial School, and the Roman Forums, all places for the slaughter of Catholics.
It’s unknown what happened to the artist, but mockery arising from fear, or later, grief, can be an occasion when God’s mercy works conversion. The blood of the martyrs waters the seed bed of the Faith. It’s good to be a fool for Christ’s sake, a jackass in the eyes of the world, the off-scouring of the earth, as Saint Paul says. After all, did not Jesus become a Jackass for us, taking on such abuse so as to redeem all us, who truly are such jackasses? Yes, He did.
For all these reasons, Alexámenos is a hero of Holy Souls Hermitage. I have a special appreciation for all those held to be fools for Christ’s sake, for those who are kicked in the face for Christ, for those who are condemned by friend and foe alike for Christ’s sake, for those who are marginalized for Christ’s sake.
He is especially a hero because I know I would not be a worthy jackass for the sake of Christ, but I know I can count on his most worthy intercession for me, for all of us. Thanks for witnessing to the Lord, Alexámenos! Way to be a jackass for the Lord of all!
N.B. I mention that he might have been a Jewish convert. I say that because Jews were nicknamed as jackasses by all the gentiles since time immemorial. I’ve written much on jackasses and on Alexámenos.
B.T.W., are not jackasses intimate members of the Holy Family? From Nazareth to Bethlehem, at the crib, from Bethlehem to Egypt, from Egypt all the way to Nazareth, at the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem… Jackasses are intelligent, they can sing, and… and… not being in the least stubborn (as mules are), jackasses only do what they understand (very smart, that). I wish I could say that about myself.