Palm Sunday: Being a Donkey

Philippian 4:4-9; John 12:1-18
Numbers 22; Zechariah 9:9

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.
(THE DONKEY, Chesterton)

For over twenty centuries, Christians have honored holy Mary, the mother of Jesus as the “Christ bearer.” Many Orthodox families name their little boys, “Christopher,” literally, “bearer of Christ:” indeed, I am married to one! But in the gospel story for this holy day, there is another one who bore Christ—not a human creature, but a four-footed beast, huge of ear but often obstinate in his refusal to listen to orders, renowned for his “crooked” and stubborn will, and the frequent recipient of the beating stick from his frustrated owner.  G. K. Chesterton’s poem comments upon the strangeness of the Palm Sunday scene—this ungainly, menial animal walking in solemnity into Jerusalem, to the accompaniment of palm branches and celebratory cries of “Hosanna!”

We hear, in the Old Testament, that God had made use of this comical animal before.  Numbers 22 recounts the story of the prophet Balaam, who was asked by a human ruler to curse Israel, but was saved, by his own beast of burden, because this anathema was against the Lord’s wishes.  His trusted donkey saw the avenging angel of the LORD barring the road as the prophet was going to utter the curse, and she would not go any further.  When Balaam, who was blinded to the heavenly visitor, beats her to get her going, the LORD actually opens the donkey’s mouth to speak, and cry out against his bad behavior.  In her defense, the LORD himself speaks, admonishing Balaam: “If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live” (Numbers 22:33).  Balaam, then, was taught by the LORD to take on the humility of his own beast of burden, and only to prophesy according to God’s will.  Later, by the prophet Zechariah, God’s people were told that their king would come to them in an astonishingly humble manner, riding not on a kingly charger, but again upon the humble ass: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass” (Zec 9:9).

Of course, the humble donkey had also served to carry the UNSEEN Christ, completely human but hidden within the womb of his mother, as they made their trek to Bethlehem. There, in the great and loving condescension, the Almighty One was hastening to his appointment with birth, coming to dwell with us and so to lift us up.

But the greatest honor, I think, is when this long-eared, huge-headed, shaggy animal, bore the God of peace into God’s own rebellious city—hastening towards his unthinkable appointment with death.  Jesus, the King of all, had his face towards the cross, where he would trample down, defeat death by death—his OWN death. During Lent we have ample time to reflect upon this mysterious loveliness of the Lord, and so to fulfil the encouragement of the apostle Paul in our reading from the epistle for this Sunday:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is at hand.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Certainly Mary, the sister of Lazarus, had learned well to meditate upon these beautiful and praiseworthy things. In our gospel reading we hear the story:

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”

Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.

The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The King of Israel!”

Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written:
“Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey’s colt.” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.

Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign. (John 12:1-18)

They had heard about the resurrection of Lazarus, and came out to greet the One who could raise the dead. But they did not know what Lazarus’ sister, Mary, knew. That same woman who sat humbly at the feet of Jesus to learn, and so “took the better part,” had the evening before beautifully anointed this one with oil, wiping his feet with her hair, and braving the scorn of those who did not understand. She knew, somehow, that she had to honor the One who had taught such marvels, had raised her brother to life, and was dwelling among them, even eating with them.

Even she did not know the whole story. But Jesus linked her anointing to his anticipated crucifixion. The most pure, lovely, praiseworthy, noble act was yet to come. It was through this deepest act of humility that God the Son paved a way for the “God of peace” to be always with us. The Incarnate One came to dwell intimately, concretely, deeply with humanity, directing his face towards death as he entered the holy city. As he entered Jerusalem, though Mary might have intuited something, the whole plan remained a secret even to his disciples—even they did not understand what he had told them about his dying and rising on the third day. I suspect that those who greeted Jesus were putting great weight upon the FIRST part of Zechariah’s prophecy, that the arriving king was “triumphant and victorious,” but were ignoring the second phrase, that he was “humble.” How could it be that this One whom the donkey carried in, as a sign of peace, would be greeted first by cries “Save us! Hosanna!” but then by jeers “If you are the Christ, save yourself!” It is hard for us to see how humility and victory come together. How can it be that GOD should DIE? It is hard for us to recognize the depth of God’s love for us, and the power that comes by means of the Son’s perfect path of humility.

There are many strange and unpredictable things in this world of ours. The donkey can serve as an icon, a picture of this truth. So Chesterton says, “When fishes flew and forests walked/ And figs grew upon thorn,/ Some moment when the moon was blood/ Then surely I was born” Now, of course, that statement of the donkey as a monster is an overstatement. After all, even the bizarre donkey has some endearing qualities—his shaggy eyelashes and huge eyes, for example. But he is hardly the picture of symmetry or beauty. Yet God made him, and indeed used him at key points in the history of the world—at the Nativity, and as Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, as he came to his own on Palm Sunday.

Why would God do this?

Well, why would God create this world? Because he was lonely? No, for he is communion in itself, eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit Because he was bored? Because he needed servants? No, and no again. But it is in God’s nature to overflow with love and life—and the donkey, of all things, is a part of that. And so are we. As the Psalmist cries out, “The Lord is my strength and my song! The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”

Why would Chesterton speak about the donkey in his Palm Sunday poem? Could it be because in many ways we are like the donkey? Perhaps we would prefer to be pictured in a different way, as a more attractive animal. William Blake, in his seemingly innocent poem, “The Lamb,” likens us to lambs:

Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed by the stream and oér the mead?
Gave thee clothing of delight, softest clothing, woolly bright,
Gave thee such a tender voice, making all the vale rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee! Little lamb, I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name, for he calls himself a Lamb,
He is meek and he is mild, he became a little child,
I a child and thou a lamb, we are called by his name,

Little lamb, God bless thee! Little lamb, God bless thee!

Now THAT’s a nicer view of the world, isn’t it? We wouldn’t mind being like the lamb—wooly, soft baaing voice, sauntering over the hills, called by the name of God. And sometimes, of course, the Bible pictures us as lambs, beloved by God. But the Scriptures also picture human beings as less savory animals, even as wolves and foxes, wild animals. And if we are honest, we must admit that, more often than we would like, we are donkeys: awkward, obstinate, strangely formed and badly bred, unresponsive, with a voice that makes the hearer cringe! (Think of the braying boys, turned into donkeys, in the children’s animated film, Pinnochio!)

It is for such creatures, those who have difficulty responding, and those who so often make “asses of themselves” that God the Son, through whom all things were made, came into our world. It is for us that Jesus descended to the depths and rescued humanity, then rose and went through the gates of righteousness, becoming our salvation. It’s not as though God, in sending Jesus, had forgotten what human beings are like. He WALKED with Adam and Eve in the garden, and they betrayed his trust. And so, as he came into this world, as he took on a human body, a body now subject to hunger and thirst, and death, God-in-the-flesh surely knew that another garden, a Gethsemane awaited him. So he wept as he approached Jerusalem.

But he took on all that, identifying with us—donkeys who sometimes REFUSE to bear him, but whom he can tame, love, heal, and transform into real human beings—those who will bear his image perfectly, and grow more and more into his likeness.

Jesus, in rejoicing about the triumph of God over evil and darkness, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” To the scribes in Judea, Jesus’ own disciples might have seemed like the donkey—unlikely prospects for God’s love. Each of us may seem like unlikely prospects for God’s attention. As St. Paul put it, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things –and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption (1 Cor. 1:26).

Yes, of course, God has given to us natural gifts.  Yes, of course, the image of God is not completely obliterated in any human being.  Yet, so often, our fallen natures come to the fore—our bodies give out, our wills disobey our minds, or even the precepts of God, our emotions fire wrongly, and we act as we do not want to act, even our minds are confused. We are damaged goods, the “tattered outlaws of the world.”

Into this world, into our human situation, into our very flesh and into what we are has come the One who is the very Wisdom, Justice and Holiness of God—and that has changed everything.  This is the mystery of the ages.  The highest One has deigned to become one of us, to call us brothers and sisters, indeed, to call us friends.  The One who carries the world in the palm of his hand allowed a donkey to carry him, and endured those waving palms in the hands of those who would soon turn their backs.  The One who created us died.  But, as the Psalmist says, “the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes!”  Beyond Palm Sunday, beyond Good Friday, we glimpse Easter morning, and Ascension Thursday: he rose again, and ascended in triumph that WE might become Christ-bearers, that our bodies might house his Spirit, that together we might as his Body give praise to Him, to the glory of the Father!

In what hour were WE born? Well, of course, like the donkey, in the ongoing hours since the fall, when the world is disrupted, topsy-turvy, fallen and distorted.

But then there is God’s hour—the hour of Christ’s coming into the world, the hour of his coming into Jerusalem, the hour when the sky turned dark, and the hour when the dead were rescued from their tombs. And those are our hours too, if we are in Christ. The Palmist reminded the Hebrews: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”

In other words, we must stop being the donkey! Instead, we are to incline our hearts and ears to this One who has come to bring us rest— rest from our own stubbornness, rest from this spoiled world, rest among his people whom he is calling to himself, rest in the promise of a world completely renewed and transformed.

And THAT hour will last forever, a forever that calls from us an unending and mysterious song of joy. So let us join the procession and sing, as his light shines upon us:

My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be;
Oh, who am I, that for my sake,
My Lord should take frail fresh and die?

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Here might we stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
In Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend. 
(Samuel Crossman, English 17th c. poet)

As St. Paul reminds us, “whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things!” Especially over the next week!

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