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  • Writer's picturePeter Kennedy

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday has a much longer title in the Catholic Church than most people likely realize.  It is called, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.  Because Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, it is on this Sunday that we remember his suffering and death.  This keeps in mind that Good Friday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, so this allows the entire congregation an opportunity to remember what he has done for us.

palm sunday

One of the most common questions I get about the readings for today has to do with the Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  It makes no sense to our modern sensibilities.  In fact, the movie, Shrek, even makes fun of the character, Donkey, for aspiring to be a “noble steed”.  It hardly presents the imposing figure of a triumphant king.  It’s not a great war horse, nor a royal carriage as we see in more serious movies.

One part of the reason for this is typically only known to those who have studied either animal husbandry or very advanced levels of world history. (I happened upon it by accident while studying medieval combat for another project, as I do not have degrees in either).  To ancient people, bigger was not always better and apparently, war horses were only used for war.  Throughout history, donkeys and short legged ponies were more commonly used for riding, especially by the very wealthy.  These smaller animals have shorter legs and so also a smoother gate, making for a more comfortable ride.  Thus, a king would not likely be seen riding a tall horse.  If a poor man had an animal, he would never ride it.  He used it for carrying burdens while he walked beside it.  I would never waste an expensive animal to carry me when I can walk.

As with many parts of sacred scripture, the reason goes far deeper than this, though.  First, Jesus is fulfilling a prophesy from the book of Zechariah: "Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.” (Zach 9:9)  But, this doesn’t really tell us much without greater context.  Ultimately, the reason that Jesus is doing this is to offer a reminder to his people about their identity.

To understand this, we need to go back to the story of the ascension of Solomon to his father’s throne in 1 Kings 2.  In this story, Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother had come into Jerusalem riding a war horse with his armies and essentially proclaimed himself to be king before King David was even dead.  Solomon’s mother feared that others of David’s bloodline might be in danger, as kings often “purified the bloodline” in order to make sure they solidified their power. So while Adonijah held a feast to commemorate his newfound power, she went to David on his deathbed and reminded him that he had named Solomon as his successor.

This is where we begin to see some similarities to the story of Jesus.  Herod and Ceasar were pretenders to the throne.  Like Adonijah, they had installed their own high priest, their own Prime Ministers (Pilate), and were acting as though Jerusalem belonged to them.  For example, Caiaphas was not the true high priest at the time of Jesus.  His father-in-law, Annas, was the rightly elected high priest, but the Romans found Caiaphas easier to work with and imposed him on the people.

In order to counteract the usurper Adonijah, David gathered the high priest, Zadok, the Prophet, Nathan, and his own prime minister, Benaiah.  He sent them together with Solomon and in full view of the people, Zadok the High Priest poured a horn of Oil over the head of Solomon, anointing him king. Recall, that our Gospel for this week begins with a similar anointing of Jesus by a woman (likely Mary of Bethany), before he begins his own Journey to Jerusalem.

David then has them place Solomon on his own donkey and ride peacefully into the city of Jerusalem in full view of the people and with the support of the high priest, the prophet, and the prime minister.  The people recognize the sign and begin to celebrate in the streets that the true king has arrived as proclaimed by the true high king, the true prophet, and the true prime minister.  They then set Solomon on the throne of David and the local officials have no choice but to pay him homage.  The people demand it.

Similarly, Jesus enters Jerusalem but with slight differences.  Just as his anointing was by a woman of ill repute (per the Gospel of Luke), so the donkey he rides is a simple beast of burden and not a royal steed. This fulfills the “humility” portion of the prophecy of Zachariah.  He enters with his own prime minister, Peter, whom he gives this office in Matthew 16:19 when he gives him the keys to the kingdom, James his Priest, who will offer his final sacrifice at the temple where he will be martyred, and John his prophet who would write the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John in addition to several epistles.  He enters with his disciples who come from the various peoples and sects of Israel at the time.  And he enters to the joyful celebration of the people.

Most importantly, he enters in peace.  He is not coming to Jerusalem as a conqueror, but rather as the rightful ruler.  He is not here to impose his rule, but rather to offer it.  It is this that makes him dangerous to those in power.

On a spiritual level, Jesus offers us the same.  We each have an opportunity to welcome him into our own hearts, to anoint him king. But most of us prefer to wear the crown ourselves and not to give it over to Jesus.  We prefer our own false rule.  We make our appetites our prime minister, our passions our high priest, and our own worries and plans into our prophets.  And so, on this day we cry out, “crucify him” and “purify the bloodline.”  But it is through this very act that the lamb becomes the lion.  The simple man reveals his divinity. Through his suffering and death, he can conquer these things in each of us if we only invite him to do so.

Go to confession this week. Return to the sacraments.  Let Jesus reign in your heart, now and forever.

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