We British are really good at pomp. And we tend to enjoy, on occasions such as royal weddings, the sight of the beautifully groomed horses bedecked in leather, with gold trimmings, the military in their best uniforms – silver helmets, plumes of horsehair, red jackets. All beautifully choreographed so not a foot, animal or human, is out of place. Less elegant, perhaps, but just as choreographed, are visits by foreign dignitaries from presidents to royalty: the quiet sweep of armoured limousines, the police motorcycle outriders, the red carpet.
Something very similar is likely to have taken place in Jerusalem on the weekend of the Passover around 2000 years ago. Because of heightened tension around this festival telling the story of the freedom of a nation, the Roman Empire, it is thought, always put on a spectacle of Imperial Power just to remind people who was boss. So, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, would enter Jerusalem. Can you imagine the imperial procession arriving in the city? A spectacle of power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Can you imagine the sounds; the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums and the swirling of dust? Imagine the eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
From the other side of the city, from the east, another procession arrived as Jesus rode a donkey down from the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers were from the peasant class. There was nothing shiny – only the rising dust, nothing suggesting pomp or political power – just this donkey, a stubborn animal, perhaps signifying Jesus’ determination to do what had to be done.
There was no coordinated marching – no sound of all those heavy feet hitting the ground simultaneously. No banners, no weapons, no eagles mounted on poles. Just the shuffle of ordinary feet in the dust and the palm leaves – a makeshift way of honouring this, very different kind of King. This procession was about as un-intimidating as it was possible a procession to be. Jesus was with the people, one of their number. An imperial power he was not. Might this be a parody of the Roman procession? What Jesus did, in arriving in the way he did, was to speak of a different way. This way would have reminded these people, brought up with the scriptures etched into their hearts, of the words of the prophet Zechariah:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
So it seems this colt, this young donkey was so much more than a sign and symbol of Jesus’ humility. Rather, in keeping with this prophecy, it was a sign and symbol to all those who witnessed Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem that God had seen them labouring under the yoke of their oppressor and had not forgotten them.
More than that, the prophet speaks the truth that the one riding that donkey had been sent to offer the world another way, another path to victory, an avenue to true peace. And this other way? It surely flew in the face of the chosen values and methods of the powers of this world. It still does.
So for us, who still enjoy Royal pageants we need to remember, always, the one whom we follow whose grand procession was a slightly improvised, dusty affair. This donkey didn’t do choreography. This king was not just humble, but subversive – our king shows us that we, his followers, are not to be lured by the trappings of military might. We are to walk the way of the Prince of Peace. We are to be as stubborn as donkeys and just as unchoreographed – we do not march the march of the mighty, but follow the footsteps of the Prince of Peace.
Of course, the church has been lured by the bright lights of empire and power many times during its history. Christianity has been the imposed religion of emperors and kings. I think it is particularly important for us, as members of the Church of England, to beware. We are an established Church. We have a place with the ‘establishment’ and we can put on a pretty good show when we want to, with Bishops in their finery, with trumpets and rehearsed perfection. This is a dangerous game to play, and the establishment of our mother Church has, at times, been lured by power for its own sake, or has become self serving, elitist and oppressive – it has, at times, trampled on people and discredited their stories. As a church, and as individuals, we must beware that we don’t fall into this trap. We are not here to exclude or to be pompous, self-righteous, victorious or oppressive. Our way is different – we walk in the footsteps of one who stood against might, named corruption and walked amongst the common people – one who was the Prince of Peace.
Rev’d Anne Morris
Vicar of St. Oswald’s Church, Knuzden, Blackburn