Here we are beginning Holy Week. Here we are going up to Jerusalem, with the Church throughout the world, with our new Pope, with those preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation. And the Liturgy opens up pathway after pathway for us: the prayers, the readings, the ceremonies… Each of them is like a link on a computer: with the ‘click’ of faith, we can access Easter with them. And Easter opens up to us. This is what we want. We want to meet Christ this week, Christ crucified and risen. We want to open ourselves to the power of his Cross and Resurrection. We want to let these in – into our own lives, into the world. We want Christ to become more real for us. And he will. The Liturgy works.
And Jesus’ Holy Week began on the back of a donkey. It was a young donkey, a colt, and its mother would have trotted alongside. Christ enters Jerusalem on a donkey.
Why should that be? It was a message. It was a fulfilment of an old Jewish prophecy, found in ch. 9 of Zechariah: ‘Rejoice, heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Zech 9:9). Yes, here he comes the true king, the Messiah.
But why, why a donkey? If Jesus had ridden a horse, it would have been a sign of war and pride. But donkeys were for work, not war, and Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and humble, not proud.
I think we can put this another way. Here is Jesus about to let his enemies get the better of him, and finally have him crucified. Here is Jesus, from every human point of view, about to make an ass of himself. That’s what the disciples thought. It’s what we would have thought, and said: ‘Jesus, you’re making an ass of yourself.’ And, actually, there is an ancient anti-Christian graffiti from the Roman world showing Jesus on the cross – with the head of a donkey.
Yes, the donkey is Jesus himself. And the donkey is the kind of disciple he wants. The donkey is a notoriously stubborn animal, liable to a lot of stick, not very beautiful, easy to ridicule. G. K. Chesterton wrote a famous poem on behalf of the donkey:
‘With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.’
The donkey’s ‘secret’ is that one day God incarnate rode him into Jerusalem.
Well, the Church has ‘made an ass’ of herself of late. But Christ still rides her. And we are donkeys too, and he rides us. So let’s be donkeys. Let’s be ready to be stubborn for him, laughed at for him. He’s always entering Jerusalem, always coming to die and to rise. And each of us can be his donkey. Each of us, from all eternity, has been made, funny as we are, to be ridden by him. The Greek word for ‘donkey’ comes from the word ‘to be useful’. And what donkeys have done superbly, time out of mind, is carry things, heavy things, burdens – uphill, downhill, over smooth ground, rough ground, mile after mile. Let’s be donkeys then. Let’s go on, head down, stubbornly, day after day, carrying on our backs the blessed weight of Christ, of faith, of Catholic loyalty. Because the one we’re carrying is the One who wins, the One who brings victory, the One who will ride us through the gates of death into the heavenly Jerusalem.