Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. Fr Anthony Axe reflects on the many journeys we make with God as our leader, our guide and our destination.
One of the features linking the birth of Christ with his death is the presence of a donkey. There is a Christmas poem (by E. Fanthorpe), in which the ass tells of his experiences at the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. The ass’s words at the end of the poem are quite prophetic:
Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
Of course it’s fanciful to think that ass in the stable could be the same animal that Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But it stresses the journeying aspect of human life.
It would be a surprise to many people to know that the ass associated with the nativity story is not mentioned in the gospel narratives. The book of Isaiah, where many prophecies concerning the Messiah are to be found, instigated the tradition. The particular passage reads:
Sons I have reared and brought up,
But they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s crib,
But Israel does not know,
My people does not understand.
It comes right at the beginning of Isaiah — it’s verse 3 of chapter 1 in fact — when God complains that his children, towards whom he has been so solicitous, have rebelled against him. God’s human children are not as astute as the two dumb animals in Isaiah mentions — at least the ox and ass know who it is who takes care of them.
By sheer coincidence the Old Testament reading for today is also from the Book of Isaiah but this time it’s from near the end, chapter 50 in fact. During those fifty chapters Isaiah takes us on a literary and theological journey, which starts from God’s discontent with the human race and ends where he cares for it so much that he sends his Suffering Servant, whose trials and tortures have a redemptive effect on the rest of the world. The servant says,
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
Unlike God’s other children, this Suffering Servant is not rebellious and he understands.
Passion Sunday, known also as Palm Sunday, is a day of many journeys but the particular journey we remember today is that of Jesus riding on an ass from Bethany into Jerusalem to begin his Passion. The crowd hails him exultantly as ‘he who comes in the name of the Lord’, but that same crowd, fickle as ever and reflecting our own moral instability, will in a few days cry out with the demand for his crucifixion.
But Palm Sunday also marks the story of God’s people from their origins in Abraham culminating in God’s only begotten Son, Jesus — a journey that took almost 2,000 years. Then there is the journey of the Church. This journey began with creation and comes to fulfillment with God’s new creation, his Kingdom as brought about by his Son and those who follow him. There is also Jesus’ life journey to think about, from the wood of the manger in Bethlehem to the wood of the cross in Jerusalem.
And then we have the journey of our own individual lives. I’m sure many of us looking back to our origins wonder how we got from there to where we are today. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. A lot of mistakes have been made but, hopefully, much that is good has happened to us as well.
But perhaps the most important journey we make during our lives, and which we should contemplate every Holy Week, is from our own sin and selfishness to a life lived with God. That journey is made possible by yet another journey we remember today, Jesus’s ultimate journey to Calvary. Today, and for the rest of this week, we join our life’s journey with his and our two journeys merge on the same road as we accompany him on his journey towards our salvation. The beginning of that journey, from Bethany to Jerusalem, we remember especially today. And this time the ass is mentioned in the Gospels. It seems that in the poem the animal’s words were prophetic — he and the baby were destined to go places together.
But they are not traveling by themselves. We, too, throughout the week, follow Jesus, appropriating his journey, appropriating our salvation.