Anglicans of a certain age may remember the ‘Pink Book’, a collection of traditional hymns set to new melodies. I have it on moderately unreliable information that some of the perpetrators never seriously intended their forced marriage of the words of ‘Vexilla Regis’ to the tune of ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington’ to have any currency beyond an intimate, if misguided, circle, but, as they say, the rest is history. Nevertheless, they would welcome into their circle whoever it was who decided that a jolly good wheeze for Palm Sunday would be to set a rhyme about the Triumphal Entry to the tune of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’. But my unease about Palm Sunday’s proliferation of donkeys goes beyond the æsthetic.
Two aspects of the donkey ritual in particular strike me. First, is it not curious that, although we willingly cast people as Christ in various forms of Passion play up and down the land, the Palm Sunday donkey is usually unburdened. What are we looking at? And, perhaps more to the point for those for whom the Palm-Sunday-with-a-donkey is a profound act of witness, what is the onlooker supposed to see? Something’s missing.
And my second concern starts in a conversation some years ago when the Palm Sunday liturgy started once more to incorporate the reading of the Passion. An indignant parishioner demanded to know why we were spoiling Palm Sunday with a long Passion reading? Did it not detract from the Triumphal Entry, and also make the service far too long? Should not the Passion reading be left for Good Friday, so we could therefore enjoy the Palm Sunday story unclouded? And, as it happened, they never attended the Holy Week services, so they would bound effortlessly from the cries of ‘Hosanna’ to those of ‘He is risen’.
A riderless donkey and a sanitised liturgy conspire to bypass the messy reality of the Gospel. Attention falls not on the Christ, riding to his doom, but on the anonymous animal, for there is no human figure there to cause us to ask, ‘And what happens next?’ The band of enthusiastic, palm-waving followers may well find unpalatable a fifteen minute reading of the Passion in all its darkness. What bystanders there may be at 09.30 on Sunday will look on with a mixture of bewilderment, amusement and even a little ridicule at this peculiar spectacle.
Yet somehow, in this there is a faithful encounter with the Gospel narrative. Between the lines of the Palm Sunday story we see the enraptured followers, all shouting ‘Hosanna’ and preferring not to think about where this might all be leading. We hear the crowd, puzzled, uncomprehending, asking what all the fuss is about. The donkey in the Gospels might just as well be riderless for all the serious attention being paid to its rider and what he might signify by the locals, by the tourists, and even by the disciples themselves, still reluctant to take to heart Jesus’ dark warnings of what must be. And in Sunday morning’s damp and half-deserted streets there is a genuine echo of Jerusalem’s confused, ambivalent mosaic.
‘We have a king who rides a donkey’ these days might well produce the response, ‘So? The house of Windsor has ridden elephants.’ But the very incoherence of this much-loved Palm Sunday spectacle brings us closer than we could expect to the real Triumphal Entry. In all this tangle of uncomprehending denial, with its over-optimistic disciples, its uncomprehending crowd and its all-but-invisible rider journeying towards a cross about which no-one really wants to think, we find our participant selves.
David Rowett is a priest in the diocese of Lincoln