Palm/Passion Sunday

For Christians today is the beginning of Holy Week. It begins with a man riding a young donkey towards the walled city of Jerusalem, a city crowded in anticipation of the Jewish Passover feast, a celebration of freedom from slavery. If you could look down on Jerusalem that day you would see the huge golden domed temple and crowded narrow streets. You would see two processions entering the city from different directions.

On the main road coming from his winter quarters on the Mediterranean you see the Governor Pontius Pilate on a fine stallion. The Roman occupying power needed extra security to prevent terrorist threats at the festival. Alongside Pilate, riding and marching into the city are a lot of highly-trained, well-armed Roman soldiers. People line the streets cheering them - probably paid to cheer or threatened with violence if they didn’t. Here are the conquerors who have brought peace – of a sort. Everyone watching this procession has to cheer or risk violent punishment, even death. You wonder, what's going on? How long can this 'peace' last?

On the other side of the city, on the steep narrow path from Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, you see another procession. Is this an anti Roman demonstration? Is this a group looking for trouble? In the middle you see a man on a donkey and people spreading cloaks and branches of trees on the road ahead. You see people cheering.They don't look as if they are being forced to shout praises. It doesn't look like 'rent-a-crowd'. It looks as if the man on the donkey is being treated like some sort of a king. You wonder, what’s going on? Who is this? Does he bring peace or trouble?

At the head of this post is an image of a painting of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. It was painted by Wilhelm Morgner, a German artist who died in Flanders fields in 1917, during World War 1. For me it expresses both peaceful procession and the passion and suffering of Christ. The rich colours speak of royal triumph, but the darkness seems to be closing in and there is a hint of the coming passion - the suffering and death of Christ. The Christ figure seems already pierced. The other figures are ambiguous. Are they there to cheer, to observe, to plot or to crush? Or are they just going along with the crowd?

Here's Mark's gospels version of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.
"When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, 'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, "Why are you doing this?" just say this, "The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately."' They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ''What are you doing, untying the colt?' They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!' 
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve." Mark 11: 1 - 11 NRSV

In 2015 I noticed that caught between joyful triumph and coming passion, is a joke. As I wrote in Palm Sunday 2015 there's something ridiculous about a grown man riding a donkey, or the colt of an ass. The animal seems too small and the man's legs too long. It's as if Jesus intends to mock the Roman occupier's power displays as Pontius Pilate rides into Jerusalem on a mighty horse to take charge of keeping the peace among the crowds filling Jerusalem for the Passover festival.

And what exactly is Jesus saying by instructing two of his disciples to take an animal for his own use without the owner's permission? (Just imagine a teacher today asking 2 pupils to go and get someone's bicycle that just happened to be secured against a railing?) And how did the donkey's owner react?

In his poem 'The Donkey's Owner' Clive Sansom imagines the owner having a good belly laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and what he saw. At least at first - and then what? Read the poem below and decide what the owner saw in Jesus' face that made him stop laughing.


Snaffled my donkey, he did --- good luck to him!
Rode him astride, feet dangling, near scraping the ground
Gave me the laugh of my life when I first saw him,
Remembering yesterday --- you know, how Pilate come
Bouncing the same road, on that horse of his
Big as a house and the armour shining
And half of Rome trotting behind him. Tight mouthed he was
Looking as if he owned the world.

Then today,
Him and my little donkey! Ha! Laugh ---?
I thought I’d kill myself when he first started.
So did the rest of them. Gave him a cheer
Like he was Caesar himself, only more hearty:
Tore off some palm twigs and followed shouting,
Whacking the donkey’s behind ........Then suddenly
We see his face.
The smile had gone, and somehow the way he sat
Was different --- like he was much older --- you know ---
Didn’t want to laugh no more.

Image Credit: Commons Wikimedia