In my teen years, a man would show up every summer out in the sand dunes west of our town to rent donkeys by the hour or by the day. At least once each year, and sometimes more often, my friends and I would go out to where he was keeping his donkeys and we would hire them. They bore saddle blanket and uncomfortable old-time cavalry saddles. Riding on a donkey was mostly fun, but also it was a challenge. Donkeys are generally harder to manage than horses. They can run or trot, but only if prodded and if they want to. I found out how fast a donkey can move when one I rode back in those teen years was stung by a bee. My donkey moved in several different directions at one time. It was all I could do to stay in the saddle, but once the sting no longer hurt, it settled down and all I could get it to do was plod.
Fortunately, we never rode the donkeys without a saddle. I think of that every now and then when I try to picture Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. He would have made a grander picture had he ridden on a horse. But horses were for the Roman authorities (the Roman military officers primarily). All the others either walked or rode on donkeys; nevertheless, riding on a donkey was a rare event for everyday people of first century Israel.
On the first day of Holy Week, called Passion Sunday and/or Palm Sunday, or both, the celebration begins remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but it quickly becomes a very sad observance. Early in this Sunday’s celebration and worship Jesus is dead. He dies a horrible death nailed to and strung up on a cross beam elevated off the ground—assuring he will die suffocating from the weight of his sagging body pulled by earth’s gravity. His grieving mother and friends take him down from the cross and lay his abused body into a tomb. The joy, the promise, and the hope are gone—gone forever. Since we are looking back two-thousand years, we know the rest of the story, but the people of that time did not know. Triumphantly their Messiah entered Jerusalem and before the Sabbath arrived he hung dead on a cross—a narrative of overwhelming tragedy and grief.
In the twenty-first century, although the story has been told and retold for over two thousand years, there is a sensation that we too feel loss and overwhelming grief. By feeling that loss through overwhelming grief, we connect more intimately with Jesus and with the message he preached and the life he led. If we ignore the pain, the suffering, the humiliation, and the agony that was inflicted on him, we turn the story of Jesus into a fairy tale. But if we recognize the pain, torture, and execution, we recognize his story as a human story.
President Bronislaw Komorowski and First Lady Anna Komorowska visited the village of Lyse in northeast Poland on Palm Sunday, savoring a contest to make the most beautiful palm.
Palm/Passion Sunday traditionally begins by reenacting the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem. People carry palm fronds and palm crosses, the church is decorated with red and palm leaves adorn the Altar. It is a triumphal celebration. Or is it? We learn from this pageantry there are contrasts in life: joy and sorrow, feast and famine, hot and cold, life and death. Death on a cross comes before resurrection. As Jesus did, we have to die to experience eternal life. Life is a series of contrasts. Where there is no hope, hope can still abide. Where there is death, life can triumph. The Psalmist plaintively reminds us, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b, NSRV).
Think about it for an instant or two. Later in the darkness and sadness of Holy Week, we are aware of Jesus in the gloom of night at prayer in a garden (actually it is an olive grove). He is anguished. Jesus does not know what to do. He prays the upcoming events of his life will be wiped away; that he will be spared of what he faces. Here is Jesus, the human being, realizing the immediate future with doubt. He is afraid. You might ask, “How can that be? How can the son of God be afraid?” As Paul will write in his Letter to the Philippians (2:5-8), “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
In the incarnation experience of God and Jesus, Jesus took on all the attributes of humanity. He felt warmth and cold. He was hungry and filled. He felt pain and death; just as each of us does and will. That is why to know God through Jesus is to have a human and a transcendent experience. Was it coincidental or symbolical that Jesus was executed at the same hour the sacrificial lambs of the Passover are slaughtered? More than likely, it was a mystical coincidence. But let us acknowledge that the execution of Jesus was not at God’s demand, a father does not wish his son to die so ignominiously.
Nonetheless, his work finished, he gives up his spirit crying out in pain and his followers look on with despair. Jesus died as a sacrificial lamb, sacrificed not by God’s demand, but by the evil of self-interest, greed, and lust for wanton power; in other words, the demand of sin.
The result of Jesus’ suffering, and I think ours also, is as Paul continued to write (Philippians 2:9-11), “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Photos: Palm Sunday Icon and Gethsemane, and Ghent Altarpiece, Wikipedia open source. Palm Sunday in Poland, Radio Poland.