Friday, May 29, 2009

4-5-2009: Palm Sunday (B)

Mark 11:1-10/Isaiah 50:4-7/Psalm 22/Philippians 2:6-11/Mark 14:1-15:47
I read recently of a study done to gauge anger among young men coming from different cultural contexts. The singular insult that raised their ire the fastest, no matter where they came from, was calling them an ass. It seems to be perceived as an especially demeaning designation, devaluing a young man’s self-esteem more effectively than lowering cholesterol with statins or blood pressure with garlic. That’s why it’s especially intriguing that, on getting ready for his big entrance into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus sends two disciples ahead to find a colt, “the foal of an ass,” to ride in on. They oblige, as does the owner of the colt. And this colt, “the foal of an ass,” is chosen to bear the divine burden.

I’d have been useless to Jesus if I had been the one sent into town that day – I would have had no idea what a colt was as opposed to a foal or, for that matter, even an ass. Looking up the terms in a dictionary led to other equally ambiguous equine designations: donkey, burro, mule, jackass, jenny ass, hinny, colt, mare… I learned from this adventure that donkeys are domesticated asses (as opposed to wild ones); that mating a male donkey with a female horse (mare) you get a mule. And if you switch genders you end up with the rarer hinny, both the mule and the hinny being infertile, the dictionary said, in most cases. Donkeys and horses, being different species, possess differing numbers of chromosomes – nature’s way of discouraging that kind of interbreeding; but, obviously, there are exceptions.

St. Matthew’s Gospel (as opposed to those of Mark and Luke) has Jesus quote the prophet Zechariah and take him literally, riding both the ass and the colt into Jerusalem. This is the only time Jesus refers to himself as Lord, indicating that if he is in fact the Messiah, he is a very humble one indeed, straddling a couple of asses in face of the crowd’s contrasting desire for a more formidable leader with a more noble-looking entourage. Perhaps, more than in any other part of the gospel, politics and religion find themselves most clearly intertwined here as Jesus enters Jerusalem. In contrast, Mark and Luke, probably embarrassed by the image, just mention that the animal was a colt, leaving the reader with the more comfortable impression that the animal was a horse, perhaps even a stallion, and not the ass he had chosen.

The mystery of Christianity rests, of course, on the mystery of Jesus who, in turn, chose to rest on an ass rather than a stallion for his entrance into the holy city. If he is indeed the divine Messiah his entrance into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday was either a parody or a sublime paradox, suggesting that humanity and divinity, seemingly different species altogether, can indeed intercourse. But that happens best when you can pocket your pride, get off your high horse, and make friends with the donkey within – whom you will most assuredly find if you’re really honest with yourself.

(Please note the following disclaimer for all those looking for biblical prophecies coming to fruition in our day: Jesus’ choice of riding a donkey rather than, say, an elephant, does not necessarily indicate his preference for any particular political party - nor any opinion he might hold today if he were an alumnus of Notre Dame).

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