Today is Palm Sunday! When I was a little kid, I considered it one of the most exciting days of the year. Not as exciting as Christmas or the village fiesta in summer, but still a day to look forward to with anticipation. It was the beginning of Holy Week. Only five days left to the grand pageants of Good Friday, and only seven to Easter and all the culinary treats that brought with it.
In the morning, my brothers and I would take part in a procession, carrying palm fronds and olive branches. It was meant to be a dignified re-enactment of Christ’s truimphal entry into Jerusalem but to us kids it was a welcome break from all the enforced solemnity of lent. We’d argue who’d be able to carry the biggest olive tree branch, often breaking into scuffles or staging impromptu duels with the palm fronds. In our minds, gladiatorial arenas and the Good Friday/Easter story were indelibly linked.
Today I have quite a collection of legends and folktales about Palm Sunday. My favourite is the one about the obstinate donkey. It tells of a dour farmer whose old donkey refused to do any work. No matter how much he cajoled, scolded or beat, it simply refused to pull a plough or turn the mill wheel. The farmer decided to send the useless animal to the knacker’s yard. His kids, who’d grown up playing with the donkey, convinced him to give it away instead.
He offered it to two men who happened to be wandering past his farm looking for an ass. They were apostles, sent by Jesus who wanted to enter Jerusalem on the back of a humble beast. The donkey became so loyal to Jesus it would not be shooed away, not even when he was arrested and sent to Golgotha for crucifixion. Standing under the cross, the donkey was so distressed to see his suffering, it turned its back on the scene. But it still wouldn’t leave! The moment Christ died, the shadow of the cross fell across the donkey’s back, leaving a permanent mark in recognition of its loyalty. Ever since then, many donkeys have carried a cross-shaped patch on their backs, to remind people that one of their ancestors had carried the king of kings into Jerusalem.
My childhood friends and I used to wonder why Jesus was said to have entered Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a horse or a camel like the three wise men. Later I learnt that in the ancient Middle East, the horse was a symbol of war. A king thundering through the city gates on its back had come to conquer. A monarch riding a donkey meant he had come in peace. Jesus was pointing out that his mission was one of peace.