(Statue of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Church of Santa María de la Navidad, Tamazulapan, Oaxaca, Mexico, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, April 1, 2012)
Daily Office readings for Palm Sunday:
Psalms 24, 29 (morning)
Psalm 103 (evening)
Zechariah 12:9-12, 13:1, 7-9
1 Timothy 6:12-16
Zechariah 9:9-12 (NRSV):
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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
My two donkeys, Miss Sylvia and Miss Topaz, would accuse me of being quite remiss in my duties as a donkey owner if I did not mention donkeys on Palm Sunday. (I am of the belief that there is a certain set of base pairs of donkey DNA that has gifted donkeys with more innate knowledge about Advent and Holy Week than humans will ever know--it's evident from the glint in the eye of every long-eared equine I've ever met.)
Most of us are quite familiar with the Palm Sunday narrative of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but may not be as familiar with the significance of the donkey, outlined here in Zechariah. Zechariah chapter 9 is subtitled, "An Oracle." It's the back story of the basis of the Palm Sunday narratives of all four Gospels.
Now, most likely Zechariah was expecting a Davidic sort of king, rather than predicting Jesus as Messiah--but the authors of the Gospels are well aware of this prophesy (even quoting it in their narratives,) as is Jesus. This is precisely where equus asinus fits right in. A common triumphal entry for the ruling class, following wars, was on a donkey, rather than a majestic war horse, signifying peace. It also signified the return of the king or emperor to the masses, by riding a simple beast of burden in that awkward, legs-hanging-down-too-far way everyone displays riding a donkey--"See, y'all, I'm just one of the common folk, like you." (After all, one of the ways the ruling class remained the ruling class was to engage now and then in an obsequious gesture of false humility, and, as in election years today, when political candidates wear too-clean and over-pressed work clothes to press the flesh at the local café, it often worked.)
So when we add this knowledge to what we now about the Palm Sunday narrative in the four canonical Gospels, it adds a story within a story. The Palm Sunday narrative is not just about "they all love Jesus and cheer his arrival," it is that prior to the awful events that are about to take place, Jesus is actually subliminally telling the people, "The war is over, and peace is at hand." It's the beginning of our understanding of Jesus as Prince of Peace.
Unfortunately, over the years, donkeys have gotten a reputation for their negative qualities--namely stubbornness and obstinacy--which really stems more from their strong sense of self-preservation. In the wild, donkeys tend to travel solo, and are very cognizant of danger. Any donkey owner would tell you these negative qualities have a basis in truth--but would also tell you of a serenity and unflappability that donkeys possess in comparison to their shorter-eared equine kin. The crowds that must have mobbed Jesus that day could easily have spooked a horse--but the lack of any runaway donkey incidents in the Gospel narratives suggest that our Palm Sunday donkey thought nothing of ambling through the plethora of people who must have welcomed Jesus. The symbolic meaning of the donkey in antiquity as a symbol of peace is just as equally based in truth.
Perhaps it is this same unflappability that we need to embrace as we plunge into Holy Week--to remember that the Peace of Christ is already among us, and all we have to do is claim the victory that is already there. This is not a comfortable claim, because it invites risk--the risk of accepting the path of humility, and trusting in the power of the Resurrection at the very time we see trouble and death looming before us. Dare we attempt it?