Humble and Riding on a Donkey

If there is anything better than a large group of children of all ages on Palm Sunday, marching down the center aisle of the church waving palm branches while the congregation sings the great Palm Sunday hymn,

“All Glory, laud and Honor
To Thee Redeemer King,
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring,”

I don’t know what it might be.

I used to love that Sunday, with all those little ones, some carried in parents’ arms, a beautiful reminder of how central children are in the story of Jesus and in Christian faith. “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said, and, “Become like children.” It also reminds me that in spite of all the struggle, anxiety and argument we invest in getting our theology straight and orthodox, God’s grace comes to us apart from anything we believe and before we get around to doing anything, like working for peace and justice in the world. It is why Jesus paid so much attention to the children who knew only that in his presence they were safe, accepted, loved.

For Christians Palm Sunday is traditionally a day to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Peter Gomes said that Palm Sunday feels like a dress rehearsal for Easter, the real event that comes one week later. We like Palm Sunday, Gomes said, because everyone loves a parade.

But it is so much more than that. It is the first day of the week in which Jesus will be scorned, mocked, publicly humiliated and executed. And the way the Bible describes it he pretty much knew what was going to happen. At the very least he knew how risky, how dangerous, it was to come to Jerusalem for Passover, the event in which his people remembered and celebrated their liberation from Egyptian slavery centuries before. The Jewish people were once again subjugated by a hated foreign power, this time the Roman Empire. As they remembered and ritually celebrated their liberation, hopes for another liberation ran high. Patriotism was in the air at Passover. Jesus knew how his people were waiting and praying for a savior, a new king to drive the hated Romans into the sea and reestablish the old monarchy of David.

Jesus knew how volatile Jerusalem would be at Passover. He knew that his reputation preceded him, that some among his people were beginning to wonder if he were that King, the promised Messiah. He knew that the occupying Roman authorities would take a very dim view of anyone who stirred up the people and threatened the Pax Romana. And he knew that the most provocative thing he could possible do was to incite a public, political demonstration – which is precisely what he did. He not only decided to go to Jerusalem when it would have been easier, and far safer, to remain in the relative security of rural Galilee, he seemed deliberately to provoke a public reaction by riding into the city in the exact way the prophet Zechariah had described:  “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” It is good to remember that on Palm Sunday Jesus himself started the series of events that would result in his arrest and crucifixion by the Romans five days later.

On Palm Sunday Jesus came to the capital city of his nation, the very political, economic and social heart of his people. Into the everyday life of his culture and the very place that important decisions were made he brought his love and commitment, his hope for his people, his compassion for the sick and the poor, his welcome to social and religious outcasts. It reminds me that my Christianity and my Christian faith belongs there too, at the heart of our own culture and political, economic and social structures. It reminds me that trying to follow him always means finding ways to express his love and my deepest faith and hope in the secular, often messy, contentious and controversial realities of the life of my community and nation. It reminds me that Christian Faith is not only believing the right things about Jesus but also reflecting his love and justice and compassion and hope in the way we live, relate to our neighbors, spend our resources, cast our ballots.

I will go to church this Sunday and enjoy and be inspired by all those gorgeous children. But I will also remember words that first helped me, when I read them years ago, understand this pivotal event. They are in Markings, United Nations General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold’s personal journal published after he died in a tragic plane crash in 1961 while on a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa.

“A young man, adamant in his committed life…He had assented to a possibility in his being….If God required anything of him, he would not fail. Only recently had he begun to see more clearly and to realize that the road of possibility might lead to the Cross….A young man, adamant in his commitment, who walks the road of possibility to the end without self-pity or demand for sympathy, fulfilling the destiny he had chosen – even sacrificing affection and fellowship when the others are unready to follow him into a new fellowship.”


  1. Debbie Whitmore says:

    Thank you.

  2. Susan Van Hooser says:

    I love the words, “for the joy set before him”.

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