Today as we began our procession we heard the account from Mark’s Gospel of how Jesus entered Jerusalem and was proclaimed as the Messiah by his disciples and the ordinary people.
There is one interesting detail which is recorded in virtually the same words in all of the Synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus instructs his disciples to go into a village and find a donkey tethered there. They were to bring the donkey to Jesus, but if the owners objected they were simply to say, ‘The Master needs it and will send it back directly.’
Clearly Jesus had made some private arrangement with these people. We don’t know who they are and they are not mentioned again in the Gospel story. Whether Jesus paid them for the loan of their donkey we do not know. However, I like to think that they were sympathetic to Jesus and loaned their donkey willingly and freely.
They can’t have been open followers of Jesus otherwise they would have recognised the disciples. But perhaps they were secret sympathisers with Jesus’ cause. At the time they surely didn’t know why the donkey was being borrowed and they most certainly wouldn’t have realised what was in store for Jesus later in that fateful week.
Maybe though, afterwards, they came to the understanding that their donkey had been used to enable the Messiah to enter his holy city in a most fitting manner. Perhaps this realisation helped them after the resurrection to move from being mere sympathisers to become true believers in Jesus. Sometimes it is an insignificant act that starts us on the path to true faith.
You may recall the legend about the cross that every donkey has on its back. It tells us that the donkey that bore Jesus on Palm Sunday happened to be there when Christ was ascending Mount Calvary carrying his Cross. The donkey saw Jesus’ plight and wished that it could carry the Cross for him, since it was a beast of burden and well suited to carrying heavy weights.
In reward for the love this donkey demonstrated towards Jesus, God caused the shadow of the Cross to fall on the donkey’s back. It then would become a living sign of God’s love through all the ages. Of course, this may be just a pious story but it is a beautiful one and contains the truth that our love and loyalty to Christ will most certainly be rewarded.
The senior priests and citizens of Jerusalem certainly did not expect the Messiah to enter his city on a donkey accompanied by poor people waving palms. As far as they were concerned this Jesus was a troublemaker and if he persisted in opposing them then there was only one solution. And it was a solution they would swiftly put into action.
Little did they realise that their nailing Jesus to the Cross would bring their rule crashing down and inaugurate the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. They had no clue that this Jesus was the Son of God and that by breaking through the barrier of death he would open up the way to eternal life for all who believe in him.
We have begun Holy Week and we now accompany Jesus in his last days. We will see him celebrate the Last Supper with his Apostles, we will witness his Agony in the Garden, we will observe his betrayal by one of his close followers, we will view his trial and his scourging, we will accompany him on his journey to the Hill of Calvary. We will be there when he is nailed to the Cross and we will gaze on him in his last agony. We will honour him in the moment of his death and we will accompany his body to the tomb in the hillside. And then we will wait.
We will wait and then with Mary Magdalene we will go to the tomb early in the morning to find it empty, coming to the realisation that Jesus is risen from the dead. And then our joy will be complete.
In the Catholic Church witnessing the events which make up the Pascal Mystery is never merely an intellectual exercise. No, we Catholics completely immerse ourselves in the liturgy, which in a most extraordinary way makes those wonderful happenings present to us in real time. We do not observe the Pascal Mystery as an outsider from a distance. No, through the liturgy we become part of these events. They become present to us in the here and now.
This is brought home to us in a very concrete way in our celebration of the Eucharist where time past, present and future come together on our altar. The Last Supper, two thousand years in the past; the Eucharist we celebrate today; and the Banquet of Heaven, which is far away in the future; on our altar these three things come together and, through one of God’s greatest gifts, we are present at all three of them.
Today we witness Christ enter his Holy City humbly, and yet triumphantly for those with eyes to see. Today we carry our palms and we will keep them in our homes during the coming year. Many Catholics will place then behind the Crucifix which is hung in a place of honour in the home. Whenever we look at those palms we will recall Christ riding on his donkey making his entry into the city which would be the place where he would inaugurate the Kingdom of God and the open the gates of heaven.