I do not know many people who aspire to, or enjoy, riding on donkeys. It’s possible that I may have ridden on one at some point in my life as a young child at some petting zoo or something. Maybe you have ridden a mule down the Grand Canyon trail (I walked, but only part way). On the whole, we have little use for them these days. Horses are instead the animal of prized recreational choice. They are fast, they are beautiful, they are sleek, they are strong. These days they are also in many respects a status symbol since they are not really needed for labor as they were in the age before mechanized transportation. The mule or donkey is in most respects, and by contrast, an animal of humiliation and amusement in our culture. In other parts of the world that are very poor, they are like the family tractor.
Jesus does not want to sit on a horse to enter into Jerusalem for the Passover. In the ancient world the horse was an animal for warriors or soldiers. An animal for the wealthy. An animal for those with grand earthly status. It was the right of a king to take any horse that he encountered, regardless of who it belonged to, and sit upon it to claim it for his own use. For all these reasons, Jesus does not want a horse for his welcome with palm and olive branches. He is not that type of king, and he is not that type of person.
No, Jesus wants a donkey. The animal of the common person, and the animal of lowly means. An animal that is a simple beast of burden, and maybe even one of humiliation. On the donkey he sits, and on the donkey he rides like a big sack of grain. Were it not for all the waving branches, which was a gesture reserved for mighty conquerors, Palm Sunday would be a rather pathetic scene to witness: this simple Galilean grown man bouncing along atop a donkey.
When one understands with the eyes of faith just who this man is then the whole thing makes perfect sense. Our God is indeed king, but He is king in a way that does not rely at all upon earthly sources of power and authority. Therefore, he is content to live on this earth in the manner of the lowly, and in so doing shows his tremendous power. What a thing it is to ponder how low the mighty God can make himself.
The Church enters into Holy Week this year in much the same manner as the Lord entered into Jerusalem. In the eyes of the world right now we appear not so much like a mighty, strong, popular, beautiful horse, but rather like the lowly, embarrassing, simple, beat up donkey. We have shed so much of our earthly glory of late, being reduced now to the world’s mule. Who pays us much attention? Who is looking out for our rights? Who is interested in anything we are saying?
Yet, for those who see the Church through the eyes of faith for who she really is, a lot of this makes perfect sense. Our power does not come from anything of this earth. It comes from our union with the one who was content to be a common man, relying on the love of his Father for all that he needed. On one hand the Jerusalem establishment totally underestimated this man on the donkey. At the same time, perhaps precisely because they could sense there was just something untouchable and other worldly about him, they considered him dangerous and deserving of death. It is the same with the Church today and our opponents. On one hand we are not much to look at these days. On the other hand, the secular forces sense that we are a tremendous threat to their merely earthly authority which is why we are attacked with such vigor.
Holy Week reminds us, among other things, that the Church should not be surprised if we find ourselves in the same position as our Lord. It is the donkey that we must aspire to as well, and not the horse. Of the two animals, it turns out it is the donkey that was and is far more powerful.