Today throughout the world marches for peace are held. Palm Sunday has become a day on which rallies for peace are staged in many of the cities of the world. It leads us to ask what is it about this day that speaks of peace, of the hope for peace? Though many who march for peace may not be Christian, and even though a number of people take part in the walks for a mixture of political motivation, nonetheless it would seem that the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has something in it that speaks of the possibility of peace. How is this so?
Perhaps we see the answer in the stress in the story about the way in which Jesus comes into the city. It is not the first time Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem, but this is the visit that will culminate in his arrest and death. Therefore, it is the visit that encapsulates his life and ministry. He is the one for whom the people have waited. He is the messiah, the one who will save his people from their shame and from their oppression. Therefore, the writers have him come to take possession of Jerusalem, the ancient seat of power for his people. The understanding is that one who conquers Jerusalem is the one who has delivered his people, the one who has set them free. So, Jesus enters the city with all this in mind. He knows the story of his people; he knows their expectations. He knows what Jerusalem means to them, and he knows the hopes which people have invested in him.
Therefore, it is at this moment that Jesus is confronted with the issue of power. Does he take power, invest himself with power, act with power, so as to satisfy the expectations of those around him? Or does he put forward something different altogether? The ordinary symbol of power is the mighty stallion. Jesus, however, enters on a beast of burden, a donkey. His choice laughs in the face of expectation. It laughs in the face of the expectations of his time, and it laughs in the face of our own expectations about who has power. How can a donkey overpower the Roman cavalry? How can a donkey inspire us in our own search to have power? As the English writer, Chesterton observed about the donkey:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon the thorn,
Some moments when the moon was blood
Then surely, I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings
The devils walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
So, the donkey is hardly an animal to inspire strength and conquest! And for this reason, Jesus chooses this animal to proclaim the power in which he is interested. It is not about conquering, overcoming, overpowering. It is, in fact, about what happens when we let go of these ambitions. When we surrender the ambition for power, we find a different kind of power: the power that alone can truly change the world; the power that manifests itself only through the exercise of mutual self-giving, and mutual care. Thus, the very heart of power, symbolised by the city of Jerusalem, is transformed into the power of the heart. This is the only power in which Jesus is interested – the revolution of tenderness as Pope Francis calls it.
The peace that comes about through subjugation is always an illusion. But when tenderness is engaged, peace cannot but manifest itself. Yes, Palm Sunday truly is a day when genuine peace becomes at last a possibility. But first we must re-define the nature of what is genuine power. Jesus does so not by his words, but by his actions.
And so, may the last word belong to the donkey: as Chesterton concludes his poem on this strange animal,
Fools! For also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
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