We do not have a live donkey, well not this year - but maybe in time, maybe next year. I do have a knitted one though and it is a good place to start.
Somehow we have to move in our imagination from this peaceful church, from the blessing of our carefully fashioned palm crosses from this quietly knitted reminder to the frenetic chaos of Jerusalem at Passover time. Apart from anything else the city was crowded. The historian Josephus writes that two and a half million Jews came for the festival and even if this were a tenfold exaggeration we still struggle to imagine how the city might have held them all. Jews from Babylon with their trailing black robes, from Phoenicia in their tunics and striped drawers, Jews from the plateaux of Anatolia dressed in goats hair cloaks, Persian Jews gleaming in silk brocaded with gold and silver. All these people crowded into the city - many had to sleep outside the town in the suburbs, on the hills, in tents or huts made of branches or perhaps under the open sky as Jesus and his disciples did that night in Gethsemane. Add to this the mixture of power - the Roman occupiers, Temple magnates, Herodian princelings the palaces of Antipas and the high priest Joseph Caiaphas. No wonder then that Pilate who usually ruled his province from Caesarea on the coast came to Jerusalem to supervise it all.
I was in Sheffield one Saturday when Sheffield Wednesday were to play Sheffield United for an early evening kick off. From mid afternoon the pavements outside the bars were thronged there were police riot vans on the street corners, shouting fans and burly truncheon carrying police keeping the factions apart. There was anticipation, enthusiasm, and excitement but above all a tension, a wariness the sensation that a small unexpected spark could set off trouble.
Into such a Jerusalem a town in maelstrom with money changers, the produce sellers and complete with 200,000 sheep waiting sacrifice, Jesus came.
Surrounded by his followers waving palm branches who are crying “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” and amplifying this point Jesus is on a colt, never ridden before in fulfilment of a long anticipated prophecy.
The line between joyous proclamation and provocation is thin - the authorities are on edge - like the police in Sheffield, they want the supporters to have a good time but are keenly watchful - when to step in? Could this all get out of hand? Shall we be in for a riot? I was extremely uncomfortable in the city that afternoon, I crossed the road zigzagging right and left to be away from the surging from the pub doors, looking for a peaceful place to be.
But Jesus, at some point outside the city at Bethphage and Bethany had accepted all that was to take place. From this moment, of sending for the donkey, of receiving it, of mounting it he shows us how he became humble, obedient and willing to do all that his Father asks of him. From now on, from that simple quiet act of getting on a donkey the cogs are enmeshed. The donkey walks steadily from the peace of the countryside to the turmoil, tumult and shocking events of the week to come, the week that will change the world and change our relationship with God forever.