Holy Week starts off with lots of palms – but Palm Sunday's donkey is just as important to the story
Published in News & Features
For the Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations, the Sunday before Easter marks the beginning of the most important week of the year – “Holy Week,” when Christians reflect on central mysteries of their faith: Christ’s Last Supper, crucifixion and resurrection from the dead.
Palm Sunday commemorates the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before the Jewish holiday of Passover. According to the Christian Gospels, people lined the streets to greet him, waving palm branches and shouting words of praise.
As a specialist in Catholic liturgy and ritual, I think it’s clear that the deeper meaning of this Sunday is rooted in humility, rather than worldly veneration.
Humble service to others is a theme that runs through the New Testament. As the apostle Paul stressed, Christians believe that Jesus, the son of a carpenter, was also the son of God, who “emptied himself” of his divinity to become fully human. Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels praise “the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” and he proclaims that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”
Modern Catholic teachings describe humility as grounded in an understanding of one’s true relationship with God, one’s own gifts, and an openness to appreciating the talents of others.
Each of the four Gospels, the biblical books about Jesus’ life, describe him entering Jerusalem to prepare to celebrate Passover days before being betrayed, arrested, tried and sentenced to a criminal’s death by crucifixion. Each one explicitly says that he rode into the city on a donkey or a colt. Throughout the Bible, however, the word meaning “colt” is used almost exclusively for young donkeys, not horses.
This image brings to mind a line from the Book of Zechariah in the Jewish scriptures: The prophet describes a victorious king who enters Jerusalem “lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In Judaism, this passage from Zechariah is taken to refer to the Messiah, a spiritual king who would peacefully redeem Israel. The donkey itself is also interpreted as a sign of humility.
In Christianity, this animal becomes almost a symbol of Christ himself, given how it patiently suffers and bears others’ burdens. Horses, on the other hand, tend to be associated with royalty, power and war.
On the other hand, the palm branch had been associated with triumph and victory for hundreds of years before Christ. Winners of athletic contests, victorious generals and triumphant kings would be awarded or welcomed with waving palm branches, a sign of jubilation.