Palm Sunday B
The Poet Thinks About the Donkey – by Mary Oliver
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
Processions, be they triumphal entries, grand parades, or impromptu marches for issues or causes, all involve and attract people (or animals) in some way, and they have the potential to lead us, either as participants or onlookers to a deeper place. But, we cannot look away… it is hard to ignore a passing procession, striding, marching life that calls to us to respond.
For Jesus, on that first Palm Sunday, the route down the Mount of Olives, a long and windy path down a rather steep incline, cries of “Hosanna!” rang out from those who looked on. To our ears, “Hosanna” sounds more like some sort of praise, but it has another meaning. Hosanna is from Hebrew, related to Aramaic, and it means something close to, “Save us or Rescue us, I pray”. Furthermore, the onlookers cried out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” calling out Jesus as the awaited son of David. God’s proxy or representative was there in their midst, and their lives, as an oppressed people, needed saving.
Picture the streets of Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside, including the Mount of Olives that lays just across the Kidron Valley from the old city of Jerusalem. It was the Passover holiday and the city and its environs was swollen with pilgrims. Scholars believe that about 40,000 people resided in Jerusalem in those days, but during Passover, some 200,000 pilgrims were estimated to have crowded into the city…sort of like New Years’ Eve in New York City. Hundreds of People lined the roads of the city, and Jesus entered, to the welcoming cries of those who lined the way… And on a borrowed donkey. It would be understood that Jesus of Nazareth, would not have access to a donkey while in Jerusalem, and while other gospel writers quote Zechariah’s prophecy “Your king comes to you. . . riding on a donkey,” (Zech 9:9) Mark does not. To Mark, perhaps, the important thing was the humility of one who was important enough to be honored in such a way, to be looked to for rescue, but to ride into town on such a common animal as a donkey – and one not even his own. And we wonder, as Mary Oliver does, just what the donkey thought.
And the people, as he passed by, strewed “greenery” (John’s gospel specifies Palms) and even their cloaks in his way. It would not have been unusual for pilgrims processing into the city for major feasts to honor someone in this way, but great crowds shouted out a plea for divine rescue and, at the same time, acknowledged Jesus as the son of David, or the Messiah, so this was no usual procession. We picture this as the only procession in town, but it probably was not.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, biblical scholars, co-authored a book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, and they speculate – the circumstances of that first Palm Sunday. Two processions entered Jerusalem that day, they theorize. One from the East, down the Mount of Olives, mostly made up of peasants, who were following Jesus from Galilee who rode a borrowed donkey down the mount. And from the West, a procession made up of imperial cavalry and soldiers. They followed the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who rode a gallant steed. Pilate had come to Jerusalem from Caesarea Maritima to try to maintain order during the potentially tumultuous days of the Jewish festival of Passover, and he and his cavalry must have made a handsome image of power and wealth and empire, and those who gathered to gaze at the spectacle perhaps had some interest in at least being around that sort of power and privilege.
Borg and Crossan point out, in their book, the central conflict: Pilate’s procession proclaimed the Power of the Empire. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Which procession you observed may have affected you in different ways.
Now we do not have evidence of what really happened in Jerusalem that day, but we do know the political climate in Jerusalem during that real week in history. Thousands of Jews, from many places, poured into the city because it was Passover, the time of celebration of Israel’s commemoration of her escape from her former oppressors, the Egyptians, all while under the watchful noses of their current oppressors, the Romans., who resented the celebration. Emotions were charged.
And then word comes of this agitator coming into town with his followers cheering him on. Every cop was on the beat that day, because great processions have the capacity of getting out of hand given large numbers of people and high emotions. The first Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry, included many onlookers who held deep hope in God and God’s proxy to come to their aid. Hosanna!
Crowds gathered and emotions also reigned at the victorious processions following World Wars I and II when the soldiers and sailors returned home. In 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman broke the news and declared an Allied victory in World War II after six years of war. Celebrations were held across the world. People crowded into New York’s Times Square to rejoice; a large ticker tape parade hailed the conquering heroes as 13,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division marched up Fifth Avenue. Victory parades were held at cities and towns across the country to honor the returning veterans and recognize the sacrifices they had made. Onlookers were not only thankful for the returning heroes, but sorrowful for the loss in those who did not return. Though victory was felt and celebrated, many were relieved that war and its many losses were behind them, and as they observed the parades, they looked on in hope of that. No more war. . . Hosanna!
In 2015, I was part of a procession, seeing it from the inside, when I attended the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church at SLC and took part, along with 1500 other Episcopalians, following the Bishops United Against Gun Violence group in making a dramatic statement about the need to dramatically lessen the amount of gun violence in our country. This was the first time I’d been in such a demonstration as a participant, and, as we passed numbers of onlookers, I wondered what the effects of our march was on them. For those around me, sauntering, a sense of quiet, a sense of purpose, a reverent sense of prayerfulness, of sadness, but hope filled us, as the sound of our footsteps sounded our prayerful walk. We strode on with that hope, that others would hear our message and be moved.
Yesterday, in cities all over our country the same issue of gun violence was the focus of processions led by students, young citizens, who processed through cities and towns hoping to make a difference in the future lives of all Americans in marches called “March for Our Lives”. Many started by grieving the loss of the 17 students shot in Parkland, Florida plus all the other victims of gun violence. One student from Parkland, who traveled to Washington, D.C. to take part in the march was quoted as saying, “Tonight we attended a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral. We heard from people of many faiths and we heard from those who have been directly impacted by gun violence. Carmen Schentrup's parents spoke and we all wept. Tonight we remembered and prayed; tomorrow we march for change.”  Hosanna!
Parades, be they triumphal processions, grand military displays, or more spontaneous marches for social justice issues, gather onlookers who become involved in some way – some respond positively, some negatively…but all are lead somewhere. Onlookers who may wave flags of support or disagreement, but it is hard to be present at a parade and not respond in some way. But, probably the most important thing for me is that processions have a direction and they lead us all somewhere.
The triumphal procession we reenacted this morning, the one that proclaims to all who see and hear of The Kingdom of God, sometimes attracts onlookers even today. I have heard of stories from some of you of past Palm Sunday processions that took a route to the top of the hill and gathered members from the Baptist congregation who joined in the procession. When the weather cooperates, as it did today, we have taken our procession outdoors where those driving by see us and remember that Jesus entered into Jerusalem to the cheers and hopes of many.
The procession we took this morning leads us all into Holy Week, the most important week of the Christian calendar and will inspire us to remember in our worship, the last supper and a foot washing on Thursday, the bleakness of the empty tomb on Friday, the first light of Easter on Saturday evening, and the glory of Easter morning. The procession we reenacted is not a simple walk. It stands for something, it calls to us, sometimes from our complacency, and it leads us and those who may observe us to the remembrance of the events of our faith. Come, and follow the procession this week, and be moved by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This is the time to follow.