Year B – Palm Sunday


The Donkey’s Cross

(Is.50:4-7; Phil.2:6-11; Mk.14:1–15:47)

Today, Palm Sunday, marks the start of Holy Week, the most important week of the year.

Most people these days seem to associate Easter with rabbits and chocolate eggs, but these things are but childish distractions. In the Middle Ages, people always associated Jesus with the donkey.

Why? It’s because all four Gospels tell us that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He could have chosen a horse or a camel, but He picked a donkey because it says so much about who He is and the kind of kingdom He represents.

In ancient times, horses and chariots symbolised power and status, and great leaders always rode mighty warhorses into battle. Donkeys, however, represented service, suffering and humility, and leaders only rode them if they came in peace (1Kgs.1:33).

So, by choosing a donkey, Jesus is clearly saying something. And at the same time, He’s fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, who said: ‘…rejoice, O daughter Zion! Lo, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey’ (Zech.9:9).

In other words, Jesus is publicly declaring that He is the promised Messiah.

In 2006, Pope Benedict said that to understand the significance of Zechariah’s words and Jesus’ behaviour, we need to listen to the prophet’s other predictions about the Messiah, for he tells us three things about Jesus (cf. Zech.9:10).

Firstly, he says that He’ll be a king of the poor, a poor man among the poor and for the poor.

Secondly, he says that Jesus will be a king of peace.

And thirdly, he says that Jesus will be a king for the whole world, for His kingdom of peace will extend ‘from sea to sea… to the ends of the earth.’ [i]

All this is symbolised by the humble donkey.

Now, some people think that donkeys are stupid animals, and they like to make fun of them. In the Scriptures, however, donkeys are always considered noble creatures that do important work.

For example, the kings David and Solomon and all the prophets ride them, and so does Abraham (Gen.22:3). In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a donkey carries the wounded man to safety (Lk.10:34). Balaam’s donkey teaches his master a lesson (Num. 22), and another donkey carries bread and wine to Saul (1Sam.6:20).

All these animals are working for God. They’re carrying God’s messengers; they’re helping to spread God’s Word. They’re delivering help and wisdom to those who need it, and they’re carrying the bread and wine – the Body and Blood of Christ – to where they are needed.

Indeed, the donkey is the ultimate bearer of Salvation, for it carries Mary to Bethlehem at the start of Jesus’ life, and it carries Him to His end in Jerusalem.

In all this, the donkey serves as a wonderful symbol for Christian discipleship. It’s an ordinary creature doing extraordinary things for God, and all this animal has to do is co-operate. It doesn’t even need to understand what it’s doing; it only needs to be loyal and helpful.

Isn’t this an important lesson for us all?

Let’s close with a story. A poor farmer near Jerusalem had a donkey. It was too small to do much work, he couldn’t afford to keep it, and it was too small to sell. So, he decided to kill it.

His children loved that donkey, however. They begged him not to hurt it, and suggested that he tie the donkey to a tree on the way into town. Maybe someone would take it.

Well, the farmer did just that, and soon two men expressed interest. ‘It can carry almost nothing,’ the farmer warned.

‘Jesus of Nazareth needs it,’ one man replied.

The farmer couldn’t imagine what a great teacher would want with such a worthless animal, but he agreed.

The men took the animal to Jesus, who stroked the grateful donkey’s face and then rode it away. It was Palm Sunday, and riding that small, common donkey, Jesus led his followers into Jerusalem.

The donkey loved his gentle master so much that it later followed Him to Calvary. But seeing Jesus on the Cross broke its heart. The donkey turned away, but couldn’t leave. And just then the shadow of the Cross fell upon its back, and there it stayed.

Ever since, all donkeys have carried the sign of the Cross on their backs. [ii]

So, this Holy Week, forget about the Easter rabbits. It’s the donkey that has something to teach us about our lives.

[i] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Palm Sunday, 2006.

[ii] Sue Weaver, The Donkey Companion (Storey Publishing, 2008). (Abridged).