Man on a Donkey

Behold, your king comes to you meek
and riding on an ass
(Matt 21:5; Zec 9:9)  
 

On Palm Sunday the Church gives us a surfeit of liturgy. Mass begins with a gospel reading followed by a procession and then the Passion is read in dramatic form. By the time the reading of the Passion is done, we’ve almost forgotten the procession of the palms and Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. If I may, though, I would like to take you back there, to our procession, and back further to Jesus’ procession atop the donkey into Jerusalem.

This day means a lot to me. I have walked the Palm Sunday procession a couple of times, from Bethpage, through Bethany and down the Mount of Olives, past the graves of pious Jews buried there so on the last day they will rise facing west to see the Messiah enter the gate called Golden, and then across the Kedron Valley to Saint Ann’s Church inside the Old City Walls.

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I have walked the procession with the Christians of the Holy Land, as their ancestors and visiting pilgrims have done since the earliest centuries. In better days, today’s Palestinian Christians came from all over Israel and the West Bank by the thousands. Along the route, scouts would martial the crowds, and Muslim neighbors would look on with curiosity. Often special permits were needed; sometimes I was involved in negotiating for those permits, and often the authorities would hold the permits back until the last minute. This year, the last I saw, permits had not been granted. Furthermore, the Israeli-built Separation Wall lies athwart the route, dividing Bethany in two.

That procession does not have the quiet solemnity of ours. It is a joyful, boisterous event, filled with pride in the people’s Christian history and a sense of solidarity with Palestinian Christians everywhere. For the Church of Jerusalem, Palm Sunday has become a kind of national day, when Palestinian Christians celebrate their identity as a community. For all those reasons, the procession between Bethpage and Jerusalem resonates with all the feeling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the Holy City. In the late 90s when I walked that route, it resonated all the more because at that time the Palestinians were alive with hope for the declaration of their own state. Those patriotic feelings are no so different from the political hopes that first century Palestinian Jews put in Jesus.

The paradox, of course, is that Jesus rides into the city neither as a victorious warrior atop his war horse or as a liberator from Roman oppression, but, instead, as a model of meekness, riding a donkey, the poor man’s beast of burden. He enters the city a man of the people, a popular hero, but as Zechariah prophesied, a man of peace. When he weeps over Jerusalem from an overlook atop the Mt. of Olives, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for wanting to restrain the disciples’ enthusiasm, “If you in your turn had only understood on this day the message of peace!” The Man on a Donkey is a man of peace, who in his meekness models the way to peace.

One way to read the events of Passion Week, an interpretation honored by tradition, is to take them as an occasion to identify with Jesus’ redemptive suffering and death. That is what we usually do; and this week’s liturgy is heavily weighted in that direction. But another is to take to heart the evangelists’ hints of the meaning of Jesus’ Messiaship. Like Pope Francis making those appeals to “tenderness,” the early church drew lessons from the passion and death of Jesus: a message of humility, gentleness and service. Even Saint Paul calls Jesus “the gentle one.”

This is the message that Jesus himself draws in John’s Gospel after he has washed the disciples feet, “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet” (Jn 13: 14-15). Similarly, in Luke’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus asks, “For who is the greatest the one at table or the one who serves? The one at table, surely? Yet here am I as one who serves!” (Lk 22: 27).

Saint Paul, who gave Christians our underlying narrative of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection as a drama of redemption, always tied the story of Jesus closely to pleas for mutual deference and service. “There must be no competition among you, no conceit,” he wrote the Philippians, “but everyone is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everyone thinks of other people’s interests instead” (Phil 2: 3-4).

So, this week if you would draw near to Jesus in his suffering and death, take on the mind of the one who humbled himself and assumed our human vulnerability and mortality (Phil 2:5-7). “Go to the edges,” as Pope Francis likes to say, draw close to the poor, the uneducated, the sick and impaired, the intellectually challenged, the frail elderly, especially those suffering dementia, and serve them. For that is where Christ himself would be. That is where Christ wants us to be.

Drew Christiansen, S.J. is former editor of America and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University. He is also an honorary canon of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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