For many churches, Palm Sunday’s a day that has a story made for ritual.
Jesus enters Jerusalem, riding on a donkey while crowds of people throw their coats and branches on the ground before him, waving palm branches and shouting “hosanna” to welcome the triumphant king. So we have palms, some that we wave, some that we fold into crosses to help us remember the story continues, some for decoration. And we shout “hosanna” and we might even have a parade, either as a procession around the building or an actual parade on the street. There’s tremendous potential for re-enacting the story and we often do.
Maybe this is a moment to pause and consider some of the other stories of Jesus we could re-enact regularly, like feeding the 5,000 or healing the sick or showing compassion to a stranger. Just a thought.
But back to Palm Sunday. The story’s in all four gospels, each with it’s own particular features, but generally it’s full of important symbolism that acknowledges who Jesus is: he comes to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, where tradition holds the messiah will appear; he rides into town, like a king, but on a donkey, a symbol of humility; that kind of arrival was prophesied by Zechariah, that the king would come, riding a donkey, and put an end to war and fighting and there will be peace everywhere; branches and clothes to walk on honours his royalty; shouts of hosanna and praise for “the son of David” and “Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth” are signs acknowledging his great triumph. In this moment. But the story goes on.
I often like to remind myself that we know how the story goes on. What would it be like if we didn’t know what was happening next? Wouldn’t we embrace the moment, wouldn’t we buy into the excitement, wouldn’t we want to celebrate – as one of the Skit Guys says in one of their videos – that this was the moment when “Jesus showed up?” Jesus showed up. Jesus. The Jesus we wanted, the Jesus who triumphs. Even if it’s just a moment, maybe we need to stop here and enjoy this moment of triumph to more fully understand the disciples’ heartbreak later in the week. It was all going so well.
Or do we just want it to look that way?
Lately, I’ve been wondering about this story and how manufactured it feels. It seems highly unlikely that Jesus had ever been on a donkey before, or any animal for that matter, he walked everywhere and wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway. And he’s going to ride a donkey or its colt, described as “unridden,” into a crowd of shouting and cheering people on narrow streets, streets on which people have tossed branches and clothes? I don’t know that I see a calm and organized procession, royal and triumphant.
I think I see marginally organized chaos. As Jesus tries to remain calm (hopefully) and hold on, and people shout loudly all around him, the donkey tries to pick his way over the branches and clothes, trying not to trip, stumble or fall. It might need to be pulled, rather than led, or it might be trying to bolt, either way, I feel kind of bad for the donkey. It must have been terrifying. I know, you want to believe he knew who he was carrying, or maybe that Jesus had a way with animals, but the donkey was probably too busy being scared. Or maybe he knew where things were headed.
So maybe the moment of triumph is meaningful for you in the context of a story that will now see many emotions, betrayal, fear, sadness and grief, before the next “ first day of the week.” Or maybe it’s worth considering that the journey of that poor donkey, not really sure where he’s going or why, surrounded by noise and confusion, carefully watching his step and trying not to stumble, maybe that’s a better metaphor for a week that will see lots of twists and turns before its end. Maybe that’s even a metaphor for a life, rather than a week of one. Where does the story lead you?
One thing about that donkey. At the end of this wild ride, I can see Jesus patting him fondly on his neck and offering him a long, cold drink of water, maybe even a handful of straw.