The Donkey & Palm Crosses

The Church’s year approaches its climax as we remember Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  He rides a donkey and palm branches are waved and strewn at his feet.

Our liturgy says:

“Behold your King comes to you,
O Zion!
meek and lowly,
sitting on a donkey!”

Why Jesus should ride in on a donkey is a subject for debate.  Some scholars think he was satirising a Roman procession, making a political and anti-Roman gesture.  Jesus was certainly executed as a political agitator, so there may be some truth in this.

However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  On his procession to take the throne of his late father, David, Solomon processed into Jerusalem on a donkey – the crowd certainly seem to understand this symbolism, as they hail Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Either way, Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate:  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surely they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women to quietly keep the faith.

Today you have been given Palm Crosses.  Palm Crosses are a lovely symbol and reminder if this event.  But by folding the palm leaves into this designs we miss why the people would have waved them.  If you shake a palm branch the leaves strike together and make a loud noise – the first century equivalent of a football rattle.  The palms were for a joyful, noisy, exuberant celebration.

For us the symbolism is deeper.  In just under a year people will bring their palm crosses back to church and they will be burned: turned into ash for use at the 2017 Ash Wednesday service, where I will mark your forehead with ash and say the ancient words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ…”

The palm is a symbol of exuberant life and a symbol of death.  And in between it is a cross.  A symbol of Jesus, who walks with us in life and in death.

Your Palm Cross reminds you not only of Palm Sunday, but of Jesus enduring presence and love through life.

But if we return to the first Palm Sunday, Jesus words and actions had set people free, he had broken down barriers that divided people, he accepted the outcast and proclaimed a new world order where the last and the least were the most important and valued.

But along the way he has upset too many if those with a vested interest in the status quo, and as we walk together along the rest of Holy Week, a tragedy is about to unfold…

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