Palm Sunday: Born to Ride

Today, Palm Sunday, is the first day of the Christian Holy Week, when everyone in Palm Springs wakes up and exclaims right away, “We’re famous!”

Kidding. They don’t.

Unless they’re Christian. Then they kind of do.

Palm Sunday is the first day of the final week of the season of Lent, which concludes on Easter Sunday. The other key days of Holy Week are Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and, of course, Easter.

On each of those days this week I’m going to write about that day.

But wait! There’s more!

Like most humans with eyeballs, I find Renaissance/Baroque-era paintings insanely awesome. Those big beautiful paintings used to be the movies for people.

I don’t think in those days they had popcorn, though. I think while ogling those paintings, people just stood there . . . gnawing on massive turkey legs, I guess. Or potatoes, for the poorer ones. I dunno.

But I do know that many such paintings depicted an event in the life of Jesus Christ. So I thought that, on each of the key Holy Week days this week, I would talk about that day through talking about one such painting. (Not that I’ll be giving Art History lessons, or anything. Though I could see giving a test afterwards. We’ll see.)

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Oh. Well, I’m going to do it anyway. *

For today’s painting we have Entry into Jerusalem, by the Spanish Baroque-period painter Pedro Orrente.

And here is John 12:12-19, which describes the event commemorated by Palm Sunday:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;

see, your king is coming,

seated on a donkey’s colt.”

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

I love that last sentence. “See, this is getting us nowhere.” Awesome. Could they be any more missing the point?

So as to the painting. Right away let me say that I have no idea what the guy on the far right is doing. Perhaps he’s thinking, “Please check out my back muscles.” Actually, it looks like he’s carving something into a tree. I wonder what it is? Alonzo was here, 1620? Who knows? It’s intreeging, though, don’t you think?

Oh, what, I can’t do puns? Just because I loathe them? Just because if I ever write one again I want you to hunt me down and kill me?

One of the things I love about this painting is that it captures the went out to meet him part. Most depictions of Jesus riding into Jerusalem show him already inside the gates of the city. Here we see him still on the road, in a pastoral setting. This is important, because we too easily forget how likely it was that Jesus didn’t just hop on that donkey right outside the city gates.

Mark 11:1 says: “Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them [go bring me a donkey.]”

John 11:18 says: “Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off.”

Two miles! That’s how long Jesus probably rode that donkey—and down a rocky, dusty road at that.

En route to his “triumphant” entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus Christ rode a donkey for two freaking miles. If ever I think of the words to capture the enormity what that tells us about Jesus, I’ll let you know.

I love how the guy on the left is holding high not a palm frond, but an olive branch, the symbol of peace. And then we see, clearly highlighted against the sky, a palm frond and an olive branch held up by another man.

Notice the clouds behind that man. See how they transition from dark to light—how they become white at the very place where, for us, they meet the palm and olive branches. And look how those branches point toward Jerusalem.

Beautiful.

Note also the red cloak the people are laying before the donkey. It’s of much higher quality than anything they’re wearing. You can see how precious it is: four people are participating in its placement.

People aren’t bringing just any old garment to lay down before Jesus. They’re bringing literally the best stuff they can get their hands on.

And look at the old man in what amounts to the visual center of the picture. It’s so perfect that he’s down so low, yet looking up at Jesus with such hope and reverence. It’s relatively easy to impress young people; the elderly, who have seen so much more, are less readily impressed. You know that guy has seen some hard, hard times. But look at him. He knows he’s beholding the means by which his glorious real life will soon enough begin.

And consider the tall woman on the left. Except for the lady with the children in (interestingly enough) the most distant background, she is the only female in the picture. Self-possessed, of some means, unlikely to be swayed by shallow sentimentality, she appears to have come less to worship Jesus than assess him. She’s dressed up, though; she’s serious about being there. But she is not (yet?) a true believer.

With her face turned almost beyond our view, I find her a fascinating expression of the skeptic within us all.

Finally—and first, really—how do we not love the fact that the donkey, looking straight at us, is unmistakably smiling?

 

* Actually, I’m not going to be doing this four other times this week. I just realized that this format—with the picture—fails, because it necessitates continuously scrolling up to see the picture. Didn’t think of that! So no go with the pics! But of course will be moved, I am sure, to this week write on the upcoming key Holy Days.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is co-founder of The NALT Christians Project and founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here). His blog is here. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Andrew D. Sargent via Facebook

    Maybe the guy on the right is pulling the palm branches from the tree.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Yes! Duh. Thanks.

    • Donald Rappe

      Or maybe olive branches, since palms aren’t trees. Olives do grow in Spain.

  • Willa Grant

    As someone who has riden a donkey many more miles than two, I don’t understand what you were trying to say about Jesus riding a donkey for two miles? The picture you picked is wonderful, I think there were not many women because women living a tradition life had no time to be out on a road to see some guy who claimed to be a prophet. Maybe. BTW I love it when you make a pun!

    • Karen Miller

      I don’t understand the significance of the donkey ride. Why did he stop walking and then enter riding a donkey? And what does riding 2 miles imply?

      Since today is April Fool’s Day, I was reading your article with somewhat of a skeptic’s eye. No offense intended, lol.

      • Donald Rappe

        The donkey is a surefooted animal suited for carrying precious cargo, such as a king.

  • Richard W. Fitch

    John, have you ever read “The Last Week” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan? It is the story of Holy Week as recorded in the Gospel According to Mark with commentary based on the culture of the Roman Imperial theology. Give it a quick scan. You may find it useful before composing the articles for the remainder of the week.

  • http://www.sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    Baroque: When you’re out of Monet.

    Stupid old art joke. You wanted puns, you’ve got them.

  • Donald Rappe

    The donkey is smiling because she knows she is the center of the picture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Susie-Leach-Feazell/1466837019 Susie Leach-Feazell via Facebook

    Palm Springs-very funny.

  • Molly By Golly

    Please go ahead and write a commentary to go with these older images this week. It is worth scrolling for!

  • http://small-letters.com Mindy M.

    I opened the post in two different tabs… it was easy enough to bounce back and forth. I loved the surprise at the end about the donkey. Please, more art (and playful interpretation) this week! :)