Isn't it odd how shy we all are about processions? We don't mind the choir and clergy dressing up and marching about the place. If we are asked to join in, that's quite another matter. Processions are mini-journeys. Journeys can be nerve-wracking. There's all the packing to do. If we have children, they must be amused. Maps have to be consulted, arrangements made to stay in motels and the bank account raided. A journey is a major event.
We might call this Sunday, "Journey Sunday." The lessons we read and hear take us from a field near Bethany to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, from there back to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to Golgotha. Finally there's the journey from Calvary to the tomb. Each one of these journeys is a major event in itself. Each new path taken seems to draw us deeper into the darkness. Death and burial beckon us. The Holy Week services will only reinforce this reality. Perhaps that's why many of us avoid Holy Week. We like happy endings. Let's skip the pain and get on with the joy!
One of the most neglected characters in the Palm Sunday story is the donkey. Donkeys are conservative folk. They like doing things the same old way. "Adventure" and "donkey" just don't go together.
The Palm Sunday story begins with a donkey in a field. It's obviously an Episcopal donkey because it loves tradition. It lives in the same field, treads the same path, and eats at the same hour-day-by-day, year-by-year. Then one day, strangers enter the field, put a halter around the donkey and pull it away. Most donkeys would resist. If this donkey had been given the gift of speech, like Balaam's ass in the Old Testament story, it might have resisted. Donkeys can be very stubborn. It is one thing to be called to do something within the context of the life we enjoy. Journeys of faith are something else. Leave adventure to those odd folk who seem to have nothing else to do but get involved!
The donkey was taken to the place where Jesus was and clothes were put on its back. Had the donkey been able to speak it might have loudly objected that it was good enough as it was. It didn't need dressing up. "I don't come to where Jesus is to be changed. I come for comfort. I come for recognition, for affirmation. To be told that I am all right."
Jesus sat on the donkey. It had never been ridden before. Leave that to horses. The donkey might have done what donkeys do, reared, kicked, and thrown this person off. Carrying Jesus is for enthusiasts, religious fanatics, but surely not for us. We don't come each Sunday to be where Jesus is in order to carry him. What would our friends think? If we are asked whether we have given our lives to Jesus, we prefer subtle ways of denial.
Then the journey into Jerusalem began and the crowds cheered and gave a ticker tape reception (using palms instead). The donkey might have mistaken the cheers to be in honor and praise of donkeys! After all being a Jesus-carrying donkey was an extraordinary achievement. "A unique donkey am I," this animal might have thought. If it had attempted to acknowledge the crowds, Jesus might have been tossed aside. Instead the donkey plodded on to the place where Jesus would do his great work of redemption.
All through Holy Week we find people drawn to Jesus, who then resist him, or try to change the story, avoid the consequences or denounce him. The crowds that had cheered him, later cried "Crucify!" Religious folk plotted his death. Most of the disciples ran away rather than face facing suffering and death. They just didn't like the way the story was working out. They feared reality. St. Peter denied him. After all he was important. He couldn't risk arrest. He was now in charge. In the end only Simon of Cyrene was prepared to be a faithful donkey and carry the cross, only the faithful and brave women and St. John, stood and watched the reality of a barbaric execution. Only Joseph of Arimathea was brave enough to offer a tomb.
Each of these journeys draws us into a world of darkness, of betrayal, of naked power, of cowardice and of death. Those of us who love a brave new world, inevitable progress, a comfortable pew, joy, peace, and love; who find illness, separation, betrayal, the use of naked force, darkness and death offensive, may well be discomforted by this day and the days that now are before us. Our faith is not an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world as Jesus, who is one of us, and Jesus who is true God, confronts and submits to the worst human beings do in order to give us the grace to be the best human beings can be. Jesus dies. He really dies an agonizing and dreadful death. In that agony, Jesus dies to all the acts of betrayal, false ambition, power, authority, evil and corruption that lies within the human race and within each of us.
For a few hours, when the last journey is over, we will be left with a dead Jesus in a tomb. There's no Easter in the lessons today. Nor will there be all week. Unless we can walk these paths, leaving our comfort zone, our self-satisfaction, daring to walk beyond safety into the darkness of evil and death, carrying Jesus to the tomb, we will not even begin to grasp the power of the Resurrection.