Sunday, 24 March 2013

Palm Sunday Evensong homily: the donkey's view

 The Donkey
By G. K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked  
   And figs grew upon thorn,  
Some moment when the moon was blood  
   Then surely I was born.

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.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:  
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

Source: The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (Dodd Mead & Company, 1927)

GK Chesterton’s poem is a very simple, but very moving evocation of the events of Palm Sunday from the view point of a creature whose voice we don’t, of course, hear in the Gospels. In Luke’s version, like Mark’s it is actually a colt on which Jesus rides – it is Matthew who specifies the donkey, but somehow that is what has stuck in the popular imagination – but it doesn’t really make much difference.  Here was a creature, says the poem, which never thought it would feature centre stage in anything important, a creature who thought he was a “tattered outlaw”, a creature who expected to be ignored and mistreated, as donkeys across the world so often are. Yet even this donkey, says the poem had his hour, his moment in the limelight, not because of anything he did, but because of who he carried on his back. He was just caught up this event. It was not of his choosing, not under his control. The sense the poem gives is that he was glad about it. It was his hour, and tradition says that it is for this reason that donkeys have a cross shaped marking on their back, which may not be true, but it ought to be!

In a way, though, Chesterton’s poem isn’t just about a donkey. It is about all those who were caught up in the events of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The last week of Jesus’ life is full of characters, good, bad and indifferent. Few or none had planned, anticipated or even desired to be caught up in all this. Even his enemies, the ones who had him crucified, would probably rather he could have been dealt with in  a less visible and less controversial way. Indeed the Jewish authorities seem to have tried quite hard to argue him out of his message. The last thing they wanted was to annoy their Roman overlords. If he would only go back to Galilee and keep quiet, all would be well. Their job of governing was quite hard enough without firebrands stirring up trouble. Anything for a quiet life, especially when the land was full of Roman soldiers.

Pontius Pilate doesn’t really want to have to deal with Jesus either. It is only because he is reminded that Caesar will not be happy if there is a revolt that he takes action.
Jesus disciples seem clueless throughout, still expecting somehow that God will send battalions of angels to back Jesus up and sweep him onto the throne they are all imagining will be his. When the moment comes that he needs them they all slink away – this isn’t in their script at all.
Those few who do stick around – his mother, John, some of the other women, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who turn up after the event to bury Jesus’ body – show considerable courage in choosing to stick their heads above the parapet and identify themselves with him, especially after his death, when it seems they have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose.

And then there are the real “bit-part players”; this donkey and its owner, the owner of the house where the Last Supper took place, Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, the soldiers who were “just following orders” when they nailed him to the cross, the criminals who were crucified beside him.  Jesus probably wasn’t on their agenda at all, some of them had probably not even heard of him until suddenly there he was. But for all of them this must have been an event which had a lasting impact, for some it changed their lives, for better or for worse. It just wasn’t something you could walk away from. There were personal impacts – the criminal who discovered at the last minute that even he could be forgiven and loved, the centurion who seems to have a revelation as Jesus dies that this is a man filled with God, touched by God in a very special way. The Roman and Jewish authorities, too, found that far from making this troublemaker go away, they had actually unleashed a force that would change the world as his followers grew rather than fading away.

And the truth is that this story still has an extraordinary power to move and change people today, even though it is 2000 years old it is also, in a sense, brand new every time we hear it. Because all human life is there in the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, every  human emotion, every human reaction, suffering and joy, despair and hope, loyalty and courage as well as betrayal, somehow we can find ourselves, a bit like that donkey, swept up into it, affected by it in new ways, ways which we, like the original players, might not predict. That’s why churches put so much effort into not just the Sunday services at each end of it, but in providing ways to somehow walk through the whole story during the week. You have some leaflets explaining how we do this here, and I know that some of you will be here day by day through the week. Chesterton’s donkey found that this was his hour – the moment that he, on behalf of all donkeys was chosen, touched and changed by God. It is always my prayer at the beginning of this week, that we should find the same thing happening as we somehow carry the story in our hearts, just as the donkey carried Jesus on his back.

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