Eve of Palm Sunday 2023 – “Relaxed” Communion” The Tale of Two Donkeys

Do you know what it means to meditate? Have you tried it yet? Has someone tried teaching you? Now, the first thing that comes to  mind when you hear “meditation” is probably… BORING. Sitting quietly and thinking about nothing is not easy. But you know, there is a different way to do it, to pray using your imagination, which still counts as meditation, but it is a little more engaging or even fun (to some!) In this Christian approach, you are basically watching a movie in your head that recreates any story from the Bible. That’s right – you close your eyes, and frame by frame, imagine everything that you’ve just read. The best part is that you choose which character of the story you get to be – ANY character, even the animals. In fact, that’s exactly what poets and writers often do when they write. Have a look at the poem I printed on the first page of our leaflet:

“The Poet Thinks about the Donkey” by Mary Oliver (2006)

On the outskirts of Jerusalem

the donkey waited.

Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,

he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,

   leap with delight!

How doves, released from their cages,

   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.

Then he let himself be led away.

Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!

And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.

Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.

I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,

as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Here, Mary Oliver imagined what it was like to see the events of the day when Jesus came to Jerusalem, and people waved palm branches, through the little donkey’s eyes. To her, he wasn’t a random animal, but he had a mind and personality, he was worth putting ourselves into his shoes; though he wasn’t especially great or good-looking, probably not particularly well-groomed either! “Small, dark, obedient” – how he wished to be free from his daily work, capable of wonderful flight, ready for an adventure. Instead, what described his life was just endless waiting and work, waiting and work. Just as we all have our worth and uniqueness, even though our lives are nothing special, waiting and work. Which on this day, for this donkey, meant carrying on his narrow, dark back a very special person. Yes, Jesus was special because he is said to also have carried A LOT upon his own back – all the sadness, tragedy, and wrongness of the whole world, and to take it away from us. 

Was he brave? Wait, am I talking about the donkey or Jesus? In either case, probably not. Yet both of them allowed themselves to be led away to do what needed to be done. Did either of them “imagine what would happen”, as in the words of the poem? Probably not fully; as none of us can usually imagine exactly what it would feel like to go through difficult times, pain, sadness, or loss until all this actually comes. But, bravely, they moved forward through the noise of the crowd, for now cheering but soon to be mocking and bullying, one dusty foot… I mean, hoof… after the other, without turning back, running away, kicking, biting, or standing still as we all…  I mean, as all donkeys… might sometimes do.

Where does this poem find you – what’s going on in your lives? What does it mean to be brave in the face of whatever is happening? What is better: wild but aimless freedom, or captured yet purposeful obedience? Who is that donkey in the Palm Sunday story: just an animal, or Jesus, or ourselves? The beauty of our sacred stories and traditions is rooted in this ambiguity; in the richness of multi-layered meaning. And faith gives us so much more than duty. Because even if we are not at liberty to do things as we wish, to live our lives and behave in ways that might seem easier, at the end of the day, the freedom to do so out of love and courage, rather than grudging defiance that looks for every opportunity to rebel, is still ours. 

PS: There is another poem that tells of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the perspective of a donkey, by GK Chesterton:

“The Donkey” (1900)

When fishes flew and forests walked

   And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry

   And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s 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.

Fools! For I also had my hour;

   One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

   And palms before my feet.

In this, we find a very different creature – one who epitomizes self-centeredness and thereby, serves as an antithesis to Christ. This unyielding focus on self first fills him with irrational self-loathing at being ugly and having floppy ears, and conviction that something was wrong with the whole world at the hour of his birth that caused him to be like this. Then, by the end of the poem, he becomes deluded in attributing the cheers of the crowd to be directed at him, as praise for something special he has done. I think this animal has a lot to teach us about our tendencies to blame what is wrong with our lives on God and others, and see our perceived moments of greatness as our own achievements. This logic does not have the potential to carry us through the most difficult of times; but shifting the focus away from self – if only for a moment – surprisingly, does. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: