01 April 2012

All this because of a donkey?

A very curious thing happens today when Jesus says a few words to two of his disciples.  “Go into the village opposite you,” he tells them, “and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.  Untie it and bring it here” (Mark 11:2).

They do as they are instructed and place garments upon the mount.  Jesus rides the colt into the city of Jerusalem and is welcomed with great exultation from the people who spread their cloaks before him, wave branches around him, and cry out to him with words of both praise and hope.  Why should such a scene be caused by one simple donkey?

The people of Jerusalem recognized the beginning of the fulfillment of their Messianic hopes in that donkey and remembered the prophecy spoken by Zechariah: "Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! / Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! / Behold: your king is coming to you, / a just savior is he, / Humble, and riding on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9).

Such a humble beast to cause such excitement.

But whereas in our day the donkey is an animal of little account, in the ancient Near East the donkey was the animal of kings.  In the Book of Genesis the donkey is connected with the promise of the Davidic dynasty: "The scepter shall never depart from Judah, / Or the mace from between his feet, / Until tribute comes to him, / And he receives the people’s obedience. / He tethers his donkey to the vine, / His donkey’s foal to the choicest stem" (Genesis 49:10-11).

And in the Book of Judges, the leaders of Israel are “those who ride on white donkeys” (Judges 5:10).

Even so, there is something peculiar about this donkey, which the disciples are told they will find “immediately” on entering the city.  This donkey is has been prepared for this purpose and is ready to be put to use.  What is more, “no one has ever sat” on this animal; it is intended for Jesus alone.

When Jesus arrived outside the gate of Jerusalem, the people must have also recalled the words of the Prophet Isaiah who instructed the watchman to look for “someone riding on a donkey” and when such a one should come to “pay heed, very close heed” (Isaiah 21:7).  The one who rode on the donkey would be calling out, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” (Isaiah 21:9)!  During the lifetime of Isaiah, Babylon was the greatest of Israel’s enemies.

Some time before, after Jesus had multiplied a few loaves of bread and a few fish to feed a crowd of several thousand, the people wanted “to carry him off to make him king” (John 6:15).  Earlier they wanted to make him king because they saw him the figure of the Prophet Elisha, who also multiplied bread for a crowd; this memory is not lost on them today (see II Kings 4:42).

They also saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the prophecy of Moses: “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15).  They had already heard the voice of the Father when he was baptized by John in the river Jordan (see Luke 3:22).  He had already imitated Moses through his sermon on the mount (see Matthew 5).  They heard him speak with authority (see Luke 4:32) and saw the many signs he performed.

Could there, then, be any doubt that this Jesus was the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies, that he was indeed the Messiah, the one who came to them today in so kingly a fashion?  It all seemed so clear.  When Jesus sent for his donkey, they knew what he was getting at and so did he.

Everything seemed so clear: Rome soon would fall and the people would have their physical needs met by the Prophet, the new Moses, the King of Judah and Israel.  So it was that the people threw their garments before him, just as the people had done centuries ago to declare Jehu king (see II Kings 9:13).  In this gesture steeped in symbolism, the people accepted Jesus as their king.

Because they welcomed Jesus as their king, the people waved branches all around him, as they did during the time of the Maccabees.  When the stronghold of Jerusalem was reclaimed, “the Jews entered the citadel with shouts of praise, the waving of palm branches, the playing of harps and cymbals and lyres, and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been crushed” (I Maccabees 13:51).  Soon, the people though, Rome, too, would be crushed.

Just a short time later, to celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, the people carried “rods entwined with leaves, beautiful branches and palms, [and] sang hymns of grateful praise” (II Maccabees 10:7).  Today the people sang hymns of grateful praise to Jesus, to him “who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9).  With these words, the crowd quoted the same Psalm that sings, “The joyful shout of deliverance is heard in the tents of the righteous” (118: 26, 15).

The waving of branches also called to mind the Feast of Booths (or of Tents or of Tabernacles) which the Lord gave to Moses to remember the time the Israelites lived in tents after the Lord delivered them from Egypt.  The Lord instructed Moses, “On the first day you shall gather fruit of majestic trees, branches of palms, and boughs of leafy trees and valley willows” (Leviticus 23:40).  So it is that on the first of the day week the peopled waved branches to welcome the king whose victory would deliver them from Roman occupation.

Yes, all this because of one donkey.

In their great hopes for and expectations of Jesus, the people were both correct and incorrect.  He was indeed their Messiah and their King and he would indeed deliver them.  But he would deliver them not from the empire of Rome, but from the kingdom of sin and death.  He would achieve his victory not through insurrection and physical force, but through the humble force of his sacrificial love.

Today, dear brothers and sisters, “we gather together to herald with the whole Church the beginning of the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, that is to say, of his Passion and Resurrection,” the means through which the Lord will achieve his victory and show himself to be both Messiah and King (Roman Missal, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, 5).

Let us pray, then, this day, “that we, who follow Christ the King in exultation, may reach the eternal Jerusalem through him” (Roman Missal, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, 6).

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