Palm Sunday is so-called because of the heraldic procession as reported in the Bible’s Gospels, of a triumphant, but humble Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem in great acclaim, with palm branches being strewn in the path of the new ‘Jewish King’, riding on an ass, or what we would today call a donkey.
Less than a week later, the Romans, with the collusion of the Sanhedrin (the collective of Jewish leaders who kept the peace in an occupied city) would crucify Jesus under the instructions of Pontius Pilate. The crowds in the city, who had wildly acclaimed Jesus a short time earlier, were, according to each of the four gospels of the Bible’s New Testament, incited in a kind of mob reaction, to ask for the release of Barabbas, a condemned murderer, bandit and insurrectionary, instead of Jesus, the so-called ‘King of the Jews’, deemed a political ‘out’ by the colluding powers.
But on this day, at least, Jesus had the approval of the masses, according to the canonical gospels, as the culmination of his ministry of healing and peace, of humility and forbearance. While much of the text in the gospels does require faith, still, regardless of your spiritual persuasion, the Jesus of history did exist, according to independent sources like the historian Josephus (not all ‘fake news’ then). But what is real, and what is apocryphal, requiring an exercise of faith, of true belief, to countenance?
The answer to this question is literally beyond our ken, beyond the remit of the diary, and possibly beyond anyone’s capacity to understand. Still, the day is a holy one in the Christian calendar, often marked by a parade of parishioners emerging from the Churches of England with their palm branches, woven into a prophetical shape of the cross, to follow a friendly donkey on a tour of nearby parish sights, before finishing up back at the church for the service conclusion and coffee.
I don’t think there will be a Palm Sunday parade in Allendale, but it will still be a day of contemplation, of trying to understand how, even today, the mighty do fall from their pedestals, abruptly knocked off by the whims of the crowd, or their own revealed humanity, or the conspiracy of antagonistic publicists. How transient our positions of authority, our presumption of power.
In many ways, I’ve always thought, Palm Sunday is a kind of mutual recognition of humility, a kind of warning to all souls in the parish (not to disparage the Gospel’s Jesus in the parade, more to realise the vagaries of the crowd’s approval), that we assume pomp and accept the opportunity for pontification at our peril, with a requisite glance at the depths to which we may imminently descend. As such, it’s a good warning both to humanists and true theistic believers alike, isn’t it? Beware of hubris, the assuming pride that goeth, so they say, before a fall.
Meanwhile, the friendly jack donkey (whose name, incidentally, is ‘Jake’) in our neighbour’s field sometimes pokes his nose over the stone wall and gives a stentorian bray. I can sense, in his tone and seeming mockery, when he looks at me, something of the point I’ve been trying to make!