Palm Sunday in most Christian Churches involves the distribution of palms and a commemoration of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem amidst shouts of Hosanna. But what is the meaning of his decision to ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? And what does this have to do with the COVID-19 crisis facing the world at this moment? It teaches us that the only path to victory over evil is the royal road of humility.
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Just a few short months ago, the great powers of the world were confident. America, the #1 economy in the world, was in the midst of one of the longest “bull markets” in recent history. China, the #2 economic power, was flexing its military and economic muscle. Europe was getting ready for another high tourist season in Spring and Summer.
But then a tiny microbe came along and changed all this. Political leaders, business leaders, scientists, were all caught unprepared and confounded. Many people grew ill and died. Economies went into a tailspin. It was like being out at sea, caught off-guard by a violent storm.
So what are we to learn from this crisis and how are we to make our way out of it? Perhaps the Lenten season, the setting for this drama, provides some clues to answering this riddle.
Palm Sunday marks the transition from Lent into Holy Week. We do well to recall that Lent begins with ashes and the phrase “remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Then we come to Palm Sunday. The anointed king of David enters the royal city. Yet he chooses for his vehicle a common beast of burden.
Keep in mind that when a conquering hero of the ancient world rode into town in triumph, it was normally in a regal chariot or on the back of a stately stallion. Legions of soldiers accompanied him in the victory procession. Triumphal arches, festooned with relief sculptures, were often erected to immortalize his valiant victory.
A Donkey for the King?
After driving out demons, healing the sick, and raising the dead, it was time for the King of Kings to enter the Holy City. But to do so, he rode not on the back of a warhorse, but a donkey. His companions accompanied him brandishing not swords, but palm branches. The monument to his victory, erected a week later, was not an arch, but a crucifix.
His earthly beginning was frightfully humble. And his earthly end would be no different. The wood of the manger prefigured the wood of the cross.
From beginning to end, the details are humiliating. No room in the inn. Born amidst the stench of a stable. Hunted by Herod’s henchmen. Growing up in a far-flung province of the Roman Empire–Galilee, the land where the country accent is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. How was it that the high priest’s servant-girl knew Peter was a disciple of Jesus? His hillbilly accent gave him away (Matthew 26:73). Jesus’ disciples were not cultured, learned men of ability. They were drawn from the low-life of a backwater region.
Humility & Humiliation
When one of his closest companions offered to betray him, he did not require millions. Jesus’ worth was reckoned to be no more than the Old Testament “book value” for a slave–thirty pieces of silver (Ex 21:32).
When he was finally handed over to the Romans, he was not given the punishment meted out to Roman citizens. Beheading was the quick, dignified way to execute someone of any standing. Instead Jesus was given punishments reserved only for slaves and rebellious members of subjugated peoples – flagellation and crucifixion. These two penalties were not just about the pain, but about the humiliation. In first century Judea, men and women typically covered themselves from head to toe, even in the scorching heat. A crucified man was stripped naked and put on display for all to see.
But this is not primary a story of violence and humiliation. The events of Holy Week are much more about love and humility.
Humility – He Humbled Himself
That’s why on Passion Sunday we read the powerful words of Paul’s letter from the Philippians (2:6-11). Though the Divine Word was God, dwelling in the serene heights of heavenly glory, he freely plunged to the depths of human misery, joining himself to our frail nature, entering into our turbulent world. As if this act of humility were not enough, he further humbled himself, accepting the status of a slave. His act of stooping down to wash the feet of his disciples (Jn 13) was a parable of his whole human existence, for this act was regarded as so undignified that not even Israelite slaves could be compelled to do it.
But that’s just it. Jesus was not compelled to do it. He willingly lowered himself in his birth, in his ministry, in his death. No one took his life from him. He freely laid down his own life (Jn 10:18). Others did not have the chance to humble him; he humbled himself.
Pride, the Original Sin
It had to be so. The Second Adam had to undo the damage caused by the first. What was the sin of our first parents? They disobeyed because they wanted to know what God knew, to be like God, to exalt themselves over God (Gen 3). They were bitten by the Serpent, and injected with the deadly venom of Pride. The antidote, the anti-venom could only be humility. The foot-washing, donkey-riding New Adam would crush the head of the deadly serpent by means of loving, humble obedience.
The first-born of many brothers lowered himself to the dust from which the First Adam has been made–indeed humility comes from the word “humus.” But God responded to his humility by exalting him far above Caesars, kings, and even Hollywood stars. And he invites us to share his glory with him. But first we must walk on his road to glory, the royal road of the cross.
Palm Sunday and Victory over COVID-19
At the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was impressed with its own beauty. The Temple, remodeled by Herod the Great, gleamed with splendor and was the pride of the people. Jerusalem was confident in itself, and saw a path to victory through violence and worldly power.
Jesus, in contrast, came in humility, with a call to salvation through humble repentance. He called God’s people to recognize that they were not sufficient to save themselves, that they needed a savior, and that God has sent them one, as a free, undeserved gift as from a loving Father.
In his recent Urbi et Orbi message, Pope Francis noted that the COVID-19 crisis, “exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our project, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.”
Of course we ought to seek prudently to minimize the damage of the coronavirus storm to lives and livelihood. But if we simply try to work our way out of it through our own cleverness, we will have failed to learn the lesson of Palm Sunday. The path to salvation is not one of self-assertion, of relying on our own greatness, but instead, through acknowledging our absolute dependence upon God. The Palm Sunday road of humility and obedience is ultimately the only way out of the humiliation caused by the tiny microbe that has brought the world to its knees.
For a vivid description of the walk of Jesus and the disciples from Bethany and Bethpage down the Mount of Olives on the Palm Sunday road with compelling fotos, listen to this 6-minute Podcast.
This article on Palm Sunday as the victory of humility is a reflection on the readings for Passion or Palm Sunday in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis – Cycle A (Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 27:14-27:66).
For more on Palm Sunday and Holy Week, see the Holy Week section of the Crossroads Initiative Library.
Banner/featured image by an unknown artist. Public domain.