Meditation and Reflection

Palm Sunday: the Messiah rides a donkey


Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini.

The Son of God, Messiah, the Hope of Israel enters Jerusalem on a donkey.

As we enter this Holy Week – the most solemn and intense period of worship in the Christian calendar – we remember that it begins with supreme joy as Jesus entered Jerusalem as the fulfilment of the long-promised salvation of Israel.

To the Romans, palm leaves were a symbol of victory and of military prowess. The Jews who greeted their Messiah were simply echoing this practice, perhaps drawing on 1 Maccabees where it is recorded that the people waved palm branches to celebrate the independence of Jerusalem and Judæa.

But what kind of messiah parades in triumph on a donkey?

The One who was born of a woman?

The One who was lain in a manger?

The One who emptied Himself in humility?

The One who was soon to die on a cross, where His grace simultaneously fuses the joy of his triumph with the profound sorrow of his death. The Passion Gospel is forever in the background of the Hosannas of the people – a people who could never have foreseen what would befall their Messiah just a week later. They yearned for a king who would proclaim Israel’s independence from Rome; they wanted a Messiah who would be their religio-political hero; they wanted a Jesus who would fulfil their religious expectations and affirm their political agendas.

This final Sunday of Lent is a time to pause from temporal concerns and reflect on the fact that little has changed in two millennia. Even today, those who believe in Christ want a certain kind of Jesus; a certain type of Messiah – one who will anoint a certain sort of leader or bless a particular form of politics or prosper a very particular war; one who will be ‘on our side’ against all the opposition, foreign and domestic. We seek a Messiah who will affirm our notions of truth and ratify our interpretations of Scripture; one who will follow us conveniently as we direct our own paths in this brief pilgrimage through life.

What kind of success, wealth, reputation or respect is represented by a donkey?

The person who humbles himself will be exalted. The humility of God in human form is expressive of the humility of God in Himself, and we are made in His image: ‘Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Phil 1:21); ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain‘ (2Tim 1:12). To make your own righteousness out of holiness, godliness, grace, religion, experience, and even of faith itself, is as legalistic and inconsistent with the New Covenant as it is to make righteousness of holy works. We can see but a little way into the nature of the soul and the depths of man’s heart.

Today is a day for humility; for reflecting on the fact that Jesus did not enter Jerusalem riding a fine chariot, or the Hebrew equivalent of an armoured Cadillac or Rolls Royce. He rode in on a donkey, like a humble peasant on a quiet mission of peace.

And these people who today shout “Hosanna!” no doubt include some of those who will soon cry “Crucify him!”. And all because they realised that the Jesus who rode in on a donkey was not the Jesus they had invented in their minds, for He had thoughts, plans and purposes which were not remotely in line with their own.