Thoughts on Palm Sunday
By Stephan Wahl
Jesus led the palm procession to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. For centuries, the animal was a symbol of nobility and not of poverty or simplicity. The stubborn donkey can also be a picture of ourselves.
It belongs to a neat Christmas crib like the lammetta to the Christmas tree: the donkey. Even if he and his colleague, the ox, are not mentioned anywhere in the Christmas story of the evangelist Luke, both have taken a romanticizing but firm place in the Christmas events over the centuries.
Arbitrarily or purely imagination, they have not moved up to the permanent ensemble of nativity scenes, so they are not just idyllic accessories for the design of the Christmas scene. Like many motifs of biblical stories known to us, the animals come from so-called apocryphal gospels, texts that for various reasons were not included in the official canon of the New Testament scriptures. They often contain a legendary design of the biblical topics. So it says in the so-called pseudo-Matthew gospel, originated around 8/9. c .:
"On the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary came out of the cave, went into a stable and put her boy in a crib, and ox and donkey worshiped him. What was announced by the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled, who says: ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows its master’s crib.’ (Isa 1,3) So even the animals, ox and donkey, kept worshiping him while they had him between them. Then what was announced by the prophet Habakkuk was fulfilled, who says: ‘Between two animals you will be recognized.’ (Have 3.2) Josef stayed in the same place with Maria for three days."
The donkey stimulated the imagination
While this apocryphal gospel may rightly not have found its way into the Church’s cycle of reading, the two cribs have managed to find a place of sympathy in Christmas Eve romanticism. And not just that of the children. The donkey, in particular, has stimulated the imagination of some with our astonishingly amusing results. For example, that of the narrator Karl Heinrich Waggerl. On early Sunday morning, it is permitted to listen to one of his easy stories. A story that is something to the Betlehem donkey – in quotes – "closer" wants to meet:
"When St. Joseph learned in a dream that he and his family had to flee from Herod’s wickedness, in this evil hour the angel also woke the donkey in the stable. stand up!’ he said from above. ‘You may carry the Virgin Mary with the Lord to Egypt.’ The donkey didn’t like it at all. He was not a very pious donkey, but rather a little stubborn in his mind. ‘Can’t you do it yourself?’ he asked sourly. ‘You have wings and I have to carry everything on my hump!’ ‘Why go straight to Egypt, so heavenly!’ better safe than sorry!’ said the angel, and that was one of the sayings that even a donkey should understand.
When he trotted out of the barn and saw what a cargo Saint Joseph had put together for him, the bedding for the woman who had given birth and a pack of diapers for the child, the box with the gold of kings and two sacks of incense and myrrh , a loaf of cheese and a stick of smoked meat from the shepherds, the water hose, and finally Maria herself with the boy, both of whom were well fed, then he immediately started chewing away. Nobody understood him except the baby Jesus.
‘Always the same,’ he said, ‘with such beggars! They came here with nothing and they already had a load for two pairs of oxen. I’m not a hay wagon, ‘said the donkey, and that’s what he really looked like when Josef took him by the halter, there were hardly any hooves to be seen. The donkey arched its back to push the load into place, and then took a step, careful, thinking that the tower above it would collapse as soon as it put a foot forward.
But strange, suddenly he felt wonderfully light on his feet, as if he were being carried himself, he was prancing about in the darkness. Not long, and that annoyed him again. ´Will they mock me? ‘ he growled. ‘Am I not the only donkey in Bethlehem who can carry four barley sacks at once?’ In his anger he suddenly put his legs in the sand and didn’t take a step from the spot. ‘If he hits me now too,’ thought the donkey bitterly, ‘then he has all his stuff in the ditch!’
Alone, Josef didn’t hit him. He reached under the bedclothes and searched for the donkey’s ears to scratch it in between. ´Run a little longer, ´ said Saint Joseph gently, ´we will rest soon! ´ The donkey sighed and went back to trotting. ‘One of those is a great saint now,’ he thought, ‘and doesn’t even know how to drive a donkey!’ It was now day and the sun was burning hot. Joseph found a shrub that was thin and thorny in the desert, he wanted to let Maria rest in its poor shade. He unloaded and started a fire to cook a soup, the donkey saw it with suspicion. He waited for his own food, but only so that he could spurn it.
‘I tend to eat my cock,’ he murmured, ‘as your dusty hay!’ However, there was no hay at all, not even a mouthful of straw. Saint Joseph, concerned about his wife and child, had forgotten about it. The donkeys immediately got hungry. He let his guts growl so loud that Josef looked around in horror because he thought a lion was sitting in the bush. In the meantime the soup had also been cooked, and everyone ate it, Maria ate, and Josef spooned the rest down, and the child drank at his mother’s breast too, and only the donkey stood there and had not a single neck to chew.
Nothing grew there, just a few thistles in the rubble. "Madam!" Said the donkey angrily and made a long speech to the baby Jesus, a donkey speech, but cooked out ingeniously and extraordinarily clear in everything the suffering creature has to complain to God about. ‘I-A!’ He shouted at the end, which means: ‘So true I am an ass!’ The child listened to everything carefully. When the donkey was finished, it bent down and broke a diesel stem, which it offered to him. ‘Good!’ He said, insulted to the core. ‘That’s how I eat a thistle! But in your wisdom you will foresee what will happen then. The spines will stab my stomach so I have to die and then watch how you get to Egypt! ‘
He bit into the hard herb angrily, and his mouth opened at once. Because the thistle didn’t taste like he had expected, but like the sweetest honey clover, the spicy vegetables. Nobody can imagine something so delicious, unless they are a donkey. For this time he forgot gray all his resentment. He carefully folded his long ears over himself, which on a donkey means as much as when ours clasped their hands." (from: K. H. Waggerl, When the star appeared to the shepherds, 9th ed. Herder 1998, p.109ff)
The donkey as a fairytale cipher
An excursion into the imagination and poetic freedom, which also contains a core worth considering here at Waggerl: God can do more than the imagination patterns of his creatures. The donkey serves as a fairytale cipher. But it is more. For a long time, the donkey in the Orient had similar significance to the horse in Europe. He was considered a much more noble animal and an intelligent one.
According to the Bible, the donkey is the pack, pull and mount animal par excellence and can even be used in problematic terrain. That is why riding a donkey at the time of the Bible was neither a sign of poverty nor of deliberately wanted simplicity, on the contrary! For centuries it was a symbol of nobility in Israel. A tame donkey with light or white fur became the mount of a new king. When Saul searches for his father’s donkeys, he finds the kingdom and David’s family described as riding on donkeys. And the prophet Zechariah says:
"You, daughter Zion, are very happy.
And you, daughter of Jerusalem, shout!
See, your king comes to you,
a just and a helper, poor –
and rides a donkey,
on a stuffing of the donkey." (Zechariah 9.9)
The Prophet sees a messianic kingdom of peace coming towards Israel. The ruler of this empire will not value earthly goods. He will choose a donkey as a mount. This prophecy is fulfilled according to the testimony of the evangelists Mark, Luke and Matthew, who report on the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and quote the word of the prophet. Today, on Palm Sunday, this gospel is being delivered in all the world’s languages in all Catholic churches. With Matthew it says:
"When Jesus approached Jerusalem with his companions and came to the Mount of Olives after praying, he sent two disciples ahead and said to them: ‘Go to the village in front of you; there you will find a donkey tied up and a foal with her. Untie her and bring her to me! And when someone asks you about it, say: The Lord needs it, but he will have it brought back soon. This was done so that what was said by the prophet could be fulfilled: Tell the daughter Zion: / See, your king comes to you. / He is peaceful / and he rides a donkey / and a foal / the boy of a pack animal. ‘ The disciples went and did what Jesus told them to do.
They brought the donkey and the foal, put their clothes on them, and he sat on them. Many people spread their clothes on the street, others cut branches from the trees and scattered them on the way. But the people who went before him and who followed him shouted: ´Hosanna the son of David! /
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. / Hosanna in the air! ‘ When he moved into Jerusalem, the whole city got excited and people asked, ‘Who is that?’ People said, ‘This is the Prophet Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.’" (Mt 21.1-11)
The sign of the donkey
"The Lord needs them." The donkey. This is a key message on Palm Sunday. Even the disciples will not have put them in the right place and rather dealt with the surprising jubilation, the triumphal procession, which is sure to them good as well did. Only after Good Friday and Easter will they understand how Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, the King of Israel. Even for us as people who know about Easter, little triumph, little personal success or that of the church is often more important than the sign of the donkey that Jesus deliberately chose.
Since the 10th century, the parish priests led the palm procession on a donkey in memory of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Since the donkey was often quite stubborn, it was soon replaced by a wooden donkey on which a figure of Christ sat. A spectacle that, when looked at deeper, says something about people.
The donkey, especially when it is stubborn, can also be a picture for ourselves. Francis of Assisi called his body brother donkey: sometimes resistant but mostly loyal and persistent in service. Perhaps the donkey is also suitable as an image for a more modest, non-triumphalist church. Jesus does not want to ride on horseback through world history, but the Palm Sunday call "I need her", applies to a church that focuses more on the cipher "ass" Oriented: peaceful, vain, close to the little and poor, sometimes laughed at as stupid and naive, often stubborn, sometimes beaten.
The Messiah, the Redeemer
But she always knows who she is on her crooked back through world carries: the Messiah, the Redeemer, who wants to bring salvation to all people through peacefulness, without fighting, with aggressive modesty. Church consists of an abundance of different people to whom the Palm Sunday call can still apply today in just as different ways: "The Lord needs them, needs him, needs you."
"The Lord needs them, needs him, needs you". A sentence with which you can go well into the coming Holy Week. Whoever engages with him will feel his strength. Realizing that God needs me anyway, with my rough edges, with everything that defines me, could be an Easter present that will go beyond this great week. I wish you all.
"You need me?
Lord, how is that supposed to work??
I know me,
i know who i am.
– at least for the most part.
Nothing is perfect,
not everything as I would like it to be.
So much is weak about me.
I don’t always feel like it
to fold your hands,
not always saying amen
in everything that happens.
I know the doubters,
i know myself.
Once like Peter
to jump daringly on the water,
that can still work,
but then keep myself on the waves
without going under the fear
– that’s another thing.
I can’t do it alone.
If you can stand me,
if you give me tail wind,
my knees strongest,
lure me out of the reserve,
maybe then .
Take away my fear
especially what may come.
Throw me into life,
and leave me in it
sing your praises powerfully."
(from: Stephan Wahl, The night is as bright as the day, Echter 2014, p.10f)
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