Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Holy Week. This is the Sunday when we celebrate Jesus as he rides the donkey, a symbol of peace and humility, into Jerusalem. The crowds are so exuberant as they throw their cloaks and branches on the path to show their respect. They shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
As I look upon Palm Sunday several themes jump out at me: courage, hope, joy, releasing the old perceptions of our self and accepting how God sees us, and leaning upon God’s understanding, not our own.
Another theme that is suggested by the events is “Come as you are”. As mentioned, one of the icons of Palm Sunday is Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The donkey was a key component of the culture of the time. Yes, it was a lowly pack animal, but its usefulness was undeniable. Need to move something heavy? Get your donkey. People used donkeys to travel from town to town.
Just a note on the Bible. Many writings were considered throughout the Council of Nicea in 325AD, the first listing of 66 books by the church father Athanasius in 367AD, the Council of Constantinople in 381AD, and the Council of Carthage in 397AD. After decades of debate the winning books were all complied into a single volume by St. Jerome in around 400AD.
But many of the writings not chosen for the Bible are still available and give us historical insights not found in the 66 books of the official Bible. One such writing is the Book of James, or the Protoevangelium of James traced back to the 2nd century AD. This book addresses the account where Emperor Augustus orders all towns, including Bethlehem, to enroll for the census. Luke 2:3-7 describes it this way: So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.”
The Book of James describes that occurrence in this manner: And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judæa should be enrolled. And Joseph said: “I shall enroll my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enroll her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter.” “The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will.” And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed.
This account depicts Joseph as an older man with children from a prior marriage. Mary is traveling by donkey, which was a common means of travel for all classes. Of course, we do not know for certain; she could have traveled by foot or caravan, but very possibly by donkey.
The symbolism is ironically apparent: a donkey led Jesus to his birth, and a donkey led Jesus to his death. The donkey was key in both of these historic moments, entwined in the meaning and symbolism of our most precious Christian celebrations. A truly blue-collar worker, the donkey was expected to do menial tasks of carrying, hauling, and transportation. Yet Spirit had other important requests.
Yes, a donkey is known for being stubborn. There is no way to get a donkey to do something it does not want to do or something it believes that may be harmful. But in these instances, an ordinary donkey is called upon to do extraordinary things, although nothing that was dangerous or that required extreme effort or hardship, or anything beyond the donkey’s capabilities.
What the donkey did resulted in something wonderful, significant, and meaningful, but what it did was just so “donkey-ish”: it walked and carried someone. It didn’t put on airs, whine, complain, or boast. It didn’t pretend to be something other than what it was – a pack animal. The donkey had no concept of what its part was in all of God’s business. It just did what it was asked to do. It came as it was, and did what it could do, and that was important.
Interestingly, in the book “The Lost Language of Symbolism,” by Harold Bayley, we are told that the donkey is a Hebrew symbol of evil and harm. In Egypt, the donkey is a symbol for the god of evil. Symbolically then, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey indicates he will overcome evil. He foreshadows the triumph over physical and spiritual death.
Riding the donkey, every person’s utility animal, means that he was riding into town for every person, Jew and Gentile. In Jerusalem, the people were excited to see him, although he was opposed by the church and by the government. The people were so excited that in John 12:19, “The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’” In fact, all of life felt the elation and joy of the Christ… for when the Pharisees ordered Jesus to control the crowd he replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
The irony is that the stones would have shouted for the right reasons – they knew that Christ had arrived to fulfill a grand plan and overcome the demands of the human ego. This is how our awakening begins; this is how our consciousness expands – by showing up just as we are, starting right where we are.
On our spiritual journey, whenever we have a challenge, we give it to God, expecting that God will take it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Little do we realize that the plan is for us to become stronger, more capable, confident, and peaceful, and through the love and help and grace of God we can handle any challenge that the world presents to us.
This is the journey we are on, the journey that Christ demonstrated -- the journey of love. Hand in hand we walk with Christ, on a daily sojourn. Our challenge is to ask for a donkey to ride, like Christ and not an armored tank. Our task is to face our most complex conflicts and fears with peace, asking for the help of Christ, and not relying on our earthly habits and old thought processes.
The donkey was not asked or expected to do anything beyond what it was called to do: walk, carry, just be itself. We are not asked by Spirit to be anything other than ourselves. We are not asked to use skills other than what we have, talents other than what we have innately within us.
Even in these times of social distancing, we are not asked to become someone different. We are called to be our best selves, to do what we do best, and what comes naturally to us, and carry the message and example of Christ in our lives. Like the donkey, we are good enough just as we are, simple hardworking jacks and jennies.
Of course, some of us, in our minds, see ourselves as Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds. But we still have a race to run, a journey to make. We will never see the whole picture. Rarely do we ever see how our part fits in and the difference we make. Those insights are reserved for God. What we can see are the needs and opportunities around us as well as the companions for the journey.
This is the power and the meaning behind the Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday. We are not in this alone, and God has more in store for us than we can know with our human minds.
Palm Sunday is the metaphor for our becoming aware that Christ is available and has the power to save us. But we are not yet complete in our awareness. We are like the people greeting Jesus in Jerusalem; there is more to what we are facing than we can know from our human perspective.
We just do what we can and release our grasp on the familiar earthly ways of dealing with our difficulties. We keep walking and carrying Christ. Our lessons exist to help us grow, learn, expand our awareness, and make better choices. The old gets in the way; the earthly ego stymies our attempts to grow in our consciousness of Spirit. This is the meaning behind the resurrection of Christ. It is the giving up of the body; it is giving up of insisting upon doing it our way.
Next week is Easter, the time when the fullest of us is revealed in Spirit. Until then, keep walking and carrying, and living in the reverence, courage, joy, hope and peace of Palm Sunday as we continue this journey of love.