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The Donkey of Palm Sunday

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

It was Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Holy Week, which signals that Lent is about to come to an end, and Eastertide is drawing near. Arriving early to Church with my family, I jostled through the crowd towards the queue that had formed along the collection point for palm branches. Picking out two sturdy branches to bring back to my family, I made haste to return back to them. Along the way, I accidentally brushed the spiky palm leaves against the arm of a prim-and-proper looking lady. As she turned around, I raised my free hand sheepishly in apology. Re-joining my family, I fell into place as the procession began. Palms held aloft, we waited for Father to begin the procession into the main church. The procession has it's own Gospel reading too, the one where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Ah, I thought, somewhat wistfully. It’s going to be a long Mass. Guiltily, I recalled the (paraphrased) words of St. Josemaria Escriva – “The Mass is long, you say. Because your love is short, I reply.” And indeed, I had little right to complain. The Palm Sunday service is a beautiful one. It is also the only time where the Gospel is interactive, with the congregation playing the part of the crowds of Jerusalem at Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, and later at His trial and Passion.

If we stop to think about it, the Palm Sunday service presents us with a deep and disturbing paradox. The Saviour of the world rides into God’s city, but dressed humbly and riding a donkey. He is welcomed by the people with cries of “Hosanna!”, but those same lips will demand that Pilate “Crucify Him!” in the span of days. We learn of the changeability of the human heart, and the fact that appearances can truly be deceiving. As I followed the Gospel reading, I recalled the lines of G.K. Chesterton’s poem, The Donkey.

When fishes flew and forests walked And figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood Then surely I was born;

This poem is told from a donkey’s perspective, and it seems that nobody thinks very highly of the poor thing, not even itself. The alliteration of ‘f’ sounds draw attention to the images of nature – fishes, forests and figs– and the impossible actions ascribed to them such as flying and walking. Even the words excluded from this alliteration, such as thorns and blood, are grisly ones, creating an unsettling effect. As a sort of clumsier-looking horse, the donkey is portrayed almost as an abomination, born under unnatural circumstances.

In this context, have I ever felt like a donkey? Yeah I guess. I have fond (and embarrassing) memories of being an awkward, tall, lumbering kid, always kind of out of place and never really fitting in to anywhere. And perhaps that is part of the human condition too – to sometimes feel insecure and anxious as to our place in the world.

With monstrous head and sickening cry And ears like errant wings, The devil’s walking parody On all four-footed things.

This part seems to continue on describing the unnaturalness and repulsiveness of the donkey’s appearance, its ‘monstrous head and sickening cry’. However, I believe that there’s more at work here as well. But first, note the rhyming scheme of this poem. In each stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme, but the first and third lines don’t. This asymmetry in the rhyming scheme enhances the ‘unnaturalness’ Chesterton is trying to portray in the poem.

But back to what I was saying. Notice Chesterton’s use of the word errant in line 2. Now, errant might mean to be lost or astray, but it has other meanings as well. In literature, we talk of knights errant, heroes who venture forth to protect people, slay dragons and so forth. In fact, I believe that Chesterton is referring to a certain literary figure in particular – Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (pronounced key-hoe-tay). Quixote is a foolish old man who goes out wearing rusty armor and riding a donkey, desiring to be a knight errant just like in the stories he loves. Despite his good intentions, he often does more harm than good.

Just as Quixote is a parody of the knight errant, Chesterton describes the donkey as ‘the devil’s walking parody’. I feel that these lines are very poignant and applicable to my own life. When I try to do things by myself, or simply for myself, or when I give in to insecurities and resign myself to feeling like a misfit, I leave myself open to the temptations of sinful behaviour. Choosing to indulge these behaviours, then, means to allow myself to become ‘the devil’s walking parody’ of who God created me to be.

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, I keep my secret still.

Again, there are references to the donkey’s stubbornness, its ‘crooked will’. Note the violent imagery present in this stanza, which is punched home by hard syllables in many of the lines. I’m referring to the ‘t’ sounds in line 1’s ‘tattered’, and the as well as the ‘t’, hard ‘c’(in ‘starve’ and ‘scourge’) and ‘d’ sounds in line 3. In a description of the donkey being beaten, these hard sounds almost seem like blows themselves.

But what do we make of this beating the donkey receives? I believe that this simple poem has multiple layers, just as Cervantes’ story has multiple layers. In Don Quixote, the main character receives multiple such beatings for his shenanigans. But each time, he is forced to then question (somewhat faultily) why he was defeated. Perhaps his cause was unjust, and God allowed this setback to teach him a lesson.

We laugh, but at the same time we subtly root for him, because Quixote is a man who is still walking with Jesus, and trying to be a better person. And what kind of person are you if you scorn such a man, anyway? This is the donkey’s ‘secret’ that he mentions, this gift of Faith which helps him bear all the trials of life.

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

It is interesting that Chesterton here uses the same ‘f’ alliteration that he uses in his first stanza. However, this is not mere duplication, but rather, a reflection. Whereas in the first stanza this alliteration was used to highlight the donkey’s status as a misfit, here it highlights that the donkey is in his ‘hour’, in other words, in his element.

And what is the donkey’s element? It is to carry Jesus on his back, just like in the legend of St. Christopher. To do so may mean to share in His sufferings. Or perhaps just the sufferings we cause ourselves. But it also means growing in faith, learning from our mistakes, and eventually, sharing in His glory.

As we entered into the Church for the Mass to begin proper, I reflected that although Lent is almost over, I still had a long road ahead of me in terms of following my Master. Despite this, Palm Sunday reminds me that despite the fluctuations in my spiritual life (saint today, sinner tomorrow), I must strive to keep Jesus in mind always, from Lent to Lent, and Easter to Easter.

© 2018 Christ Centered Convo/Garrett Christopher Ng

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