Fr. Manuel João, comboni missionary
from the womb of my whale, ALS
Our cross is the pulpit of the Word
The Law of the Donkey
Year A – Palm Sunday and the Lord’s Passion
Matthew 21,1-11 (blessing of palms)
Matthew 26,14-27,66 (passion of the Lord)
With Palm Sunday and the Lord’s Passion we begin Holy Week, also called the Great Week. After the forty days of Lent, we prepare to celebrate the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus (Easter Triduum). A tremendous and ineffable mystery, dark and luminous, before which we remain astonished, stunned and incredulous: “Who would have believed our revelation?” (Isaiah 53:1). The Church and her children live this week as a spiritual retreat, in intimate communion with their Lord. The way we live these days is one of the signs of the depth or otherwise of our faith.
Palm Sunday, the donkey and her colt
This Sunday has two faces, two distinct parts. The first: the rite of the palms, followed by the procession, characterised by joy and enthusiasm, a prophetic sign of the triumph of life. The second: the Eucharist, with the proclamation of the Passion, marked by sadness, failure and death.
From the Gospel of the blessing of the palms (Matthew 21:1-11), I would like to draw attention to two of its protagonists: the crowd and the donkey with its colt. First of all, the crowd that accompanies Jesus on his ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, acclaiming him as the Messiah and causing uproar in the city: “The whole city was agitated and said, ‘Who is this man?’ And the crowd answered, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee'”. We generally identify this crowd, presumably consisting mainly of Galileans, with the crowd that days later would demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Personally, I consider this identification unfair and unlikely. In a city that, with its suburbs, had about 100,000 inhabitants and could welcome up to 200,000 pilgrims at Easter, this crowd of Galileans, moreover considered to be exalted, would naturally end up dispersing, perhaps even disappointed in their messianic expectations of Jesus. The crowd calling for Jesus’ death, on the other hand, was stirred up by the city’s religious authorities and was certainly made up of Jewish citizens. In any case, a ‘faith’ fuelled by facile and ambiguous enthusiasm always turns out to be ephemeral and founded on the sands of sentiment.
The messianity of Jesus requires a profound change of mentality. This is why Jesus goes back to a forgotten messianic prophecy, which presents a humble and meek messiah who prefers the donkey to the horse, an animal of burden (carrying the weight of others) and of great ears (listening): “Behold, to you comes your king, meek, seated on a donkey and on a colt, the son of a beast of burden” (Zechariah 9:9; see also Genesis 49:11). Jesus is the Messiah who bears our burdens on the cross: “he has borne our sufferings, he has taken upon himself our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Consequently, the Christian must also do the same: “Bear one another’s burdens: thus you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). “For the whole law of Christ is the law of the donkey” (Silvano Fausti).
“When Christianity, the Church, each one of us, knowing that the only mode of existence is to live like the donkey, begins to wink at the ‘world’, the kings and the powerful of the earth, desiring to live and be like them through power, wealth and success, then a kind of tragic hybridisation will take place. We, made to live like donkeys, will unite with the horse, symbol of worldly power, and the result will be to find ourselves like mules, stupid but above all sterile animals’. (Paolo Scquizzato).
Palm Sunday evokes nostalgic memories of childhood in me. Boys and young men, on Saturday we would go to the mountain to look for a beautiful laurel branch, as tall as possible, which we would then decorate with flowers. On Sunday, the church looked like a waving forest, with branches up to several metres high, perfuming the whole aisle. Today the twigs are often so tiny and stylised that they are reduced to an ‘insignificant’ symbol, like so many other elements of our liturgy, unfortunately.
Another memory goes back to Easter 2002, which I spent in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, the entire Christian community came down from the Mount of Olives brandishing olive branches and singing with joy and enthusiasm. I remember some Palestinian kids throwing stones at us. A memory that makes me think of so many Christians who cannot freely profess their faith this Easter. They number 360 million (one in five Christians in Africa, two in five in Asia and one in 15 in Latin America).
My thoughts also go to the many Easter celebrations in Africa, characterised by youth and enthusiasm, a sign of a new church advancing and bringing new vitality to the old Christianity. And we really need it!
Some proposals for internalising the Passion according to Matthew (26:14-27:66)
The passion narrative is the oldest part of the gospels and we could say that it is their backbone. The four evangelists follow the same canvas, but each one has its own particular way of narrating the passion, with different theological and catechetical perspectives and particular details in their narrative. Matthew emphasises the fulfilment of the Scriptures, particularly the “Suffering Servant” of the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 21 (22). Jesus before being word is ear (Isaiah 50:5).
1. My part in this drama? One way of approaching the long narrative of the passion could be to fix our attention on each character who plays a part in this drama (there are so many of them: between groups and individuals there are about thirty!) and ask ourselves in whom we see ourselves mirrored. Each of us has our part in this drama. Each person who takes part plays a role in which Scripture is fulfilled. Which word is fulfilled in me?
2. “Go into the city to a fellow and say to him, ‘The Master says, My time is at hand; I will do the Passover at your place with my disciples'”. A fellow! How come he has no name? Because that fellow is me! The Lord wants to celebrate the Passover with me. He does not come alone, but with his friends! What must I do to welcome him?
3. Get a cock! We all have our moments of weakness and unfaithfulness. If we do not have a ‘cock’ to wake us up, we risk slumbering in our sin. This ‘cock’ is the Word of God and the crossing of glances with Jesus.
Happy entry into Holy Week!
Fr. Manuel João, comboni missionary
Castel d’Azzano (Verona) February 2023