Palm Sunday 2020: The donkey and the colt (Matthew 21,1-11)

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew (21,1-11)

1320-ca.-Pietro-Lorenzetti-Entrata-di-Cristo-in-GerusalemmeWhen they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village facing you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her: untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, “The Lord has need of them,” and he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Sion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.’

Meditation: The donkey and the colt

(Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Apostolic Nuncio in Trinidad and Tobago)

The Holy Week begins with the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This is the principal focus of today’s celebration. Although the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is read in today’s Eucharist, it is mainly to complement the Triumphal Entry: to recall why Jesus enters humanity and how he is to save us, all in anticipation of the events to be celebrated later during the Easter Triduum.

The Triumphal Entry is the theme of the first Gospel reading of Palm Sunday. This year (Year 1 of the liturgical calendar), the text is from Matthew 21,1-11. Jesus does not walk into the city. He is carried into it by borrowed animals, a donkey and a colt. Before the animals are brought to Jesus, both are tied; Jesus sends two disciples to untie and fetch them; to anyone who interrupts them, the disciples should simply reply, “Lord has need of them”.

It is important to note that we are not told how Jesus sits and rides on the two animals at the same time. Nor are we told who are the two disciples sent to fetch the animals. I leave these details to individual speculations and to the debates of Biblical textual critics. It is sufficient here to note that Jesus sends two messengers ahead of him with the mission of untying and bringing the donkey and the colt; they fulfill their mission and bring the animals to Jesus; they spread their cloaks on the animals and Jesus rides on them into the city. Like the disciples, the crowds also spread under Jesus and the animals, their cloaks together with tree branches. In this way, both the disciples and these crowds share in the mission of the animals as they usher Jesus into Jerusalem. We are further told that the crowds cry out to Jesus, “Hosanna, Son of David”. “Hosanna” is a Semitic (originally Aramaic) expression meaning, “save us!”. Jesus is coming as the Messiah-Saviour and the people are welcoming him as such.

For centuries, authors have given literal interpretations to this passage. In this, they run asinapuledrointo difficulty with regard to some of the details contained in the text, like Jesus riding on two animals at once. The Gospels of Mark and Luke simplify the difficulty by referring only to a “virgin” colt (Mark 11,2 and Luke 19,30).  However, it is my strong opinion that this passage of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is an allegory or a paradigm to recall the entrance of Jesus into the world. It is inserted here as a peculiar introduction to the high moment of the mission of Jesus in the world: his passion, death and resurrection. The presentation of the Passion Narrative in today’s liturgy is meant to underscore this point. Moreover, in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the Triumphal Entry is followed by the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus. He comes into the world to cleanse humanity, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

As already said, Jesus does not walk into Jerusalem on his own, although he could have done so. He sends out two messengers (two angels!!!, since the word “angelos” means “messenger”) to go and fetch him the two animals that are already bound. Is this not a reference to the angels that go to Mary and Joseph, who are already bound by betrothal ties? In response to their disquiet, the angels tell Mary and Joseph that the Lord needs them. They are needed to bring Jesus into the world. They will have the collaboration of some persons of good will, who also will recognize Jesus as the Saviour. They will then be “returned” to their normal life in the society (cf. Mark and Luke) and will be “sent” (cf. Matthew) and so, become messengers of the same Jesus Christ.

The accounts of Mark and Luke are more easily applicable to this allegorical reading. Both of them refer only to the tethered colt, adding that “no one has ever sat on it”. Here, one does not need much effort to see in this colt the person of Mary. She is already betrothed and so, tied to Joseph; she has never been “sat on”, as she tells the angel, “how will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1,34); she bears Jesus into the world (Gal 4,4). It would certainly be a fruitless venture to try to flesh out all the details of how Mary and Joseph fulfill their functions in bringing Jesus to humanity. In the same way, efforts to unravel the silence of the Bible on how Jesus rides simultaneously on two animals to enter into Jerusalem, would only amount to trafficking within the domain of a divinely designed mystery.

Personal reflection points:

·         Do we see any similarity between the donkey and colt, and our Blessed Mother Virgin Mary and St Joseph? Like these animals, Mary carries Jesus into the world, with the support of Joseph; when God’s messenger visits them, Mary is already tied to Joseph, but no one “has sat on” her (she does not know man); Joseph, her caretaker, is told in a dream that the Lord needs her and he does not resist.

·         How does Jesus ride the donkey and colt at the same time? We are not told; just as we are not given any details about the marital relationship between Mary and Joseph, and how they both remained chaste in that relationship. We are subtly called to the domain of a mystery.

·         Like the messengers that untie and bring these animals to Jesus, we too should never tire in disposing ourselves to become the “angels” of God to discover, untie and bring other donkeys and colts to Jesus. Am I able to do this?

·         More importantly, like Mary and Joseph, we are also challenged to be the donkey and colt of Jesus Christ. We should allow the grace of God to untie us from our old habits. We should offer ourselves freely to God to carry Jesus, like the colt, into our families and the wider society. When we dispose ourselves well, the grace of God can make us become like the “virgin” colt, on which no other man sits, except Jesus.

·         To recall that each of us could become the “donkey” or “colt” of Jesus, I wrote the following poem last year, 2019, on the occasion of this Solemnity.


You come to walk our ways
You’re here to bring us health.
On you is all my gaze
You share our dusty hearth.

You visit my own city
Looking for a colt
You glance at me with pity
Bringing me to a halt.

I’m tied by the door
And waiting by the walls.
Think on me my Lord
And free me from my falls.

Send thy angels Lord
To untie and set me free
The colt for which your blood
Was shed and paid as fee.

Jerusalem of your passion
I embrace without question
Seeking now the same unction
As the colt you rode to your passion.

(F. Nwachukwu, Palm Sunday, Trinidad 2019)