Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Palm Sunday

Mk 11:1-10

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
"Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
'Why are you doing this?' reply,
'The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.'"
So they went off
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street,
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them,
"What are you doing, untying the colt?"
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to,
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!"

This is generally presented as Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as a king. This makes the events of Easter Week sound like a classic tragedy: the fall from the heights to the depths.

But this is surely wrong. Once again, we are missing the comedy of the Gospel. A king does not enter his capital on a donkey. He enters on a white horse. A donkey is a distinctly undignified animal for a king to ride. Yet note that the supernatural way in which Jesus acquires the donkey makes it plain that he could have entered on a horse had he wished to do so. He chose to enter instead on a comic beast. He rode into Jerusalem, so to speak, on his ass.

Okay, so, his kingdom is not of this world. But that's only the half of it. A donkey is an ill-omened steed for a religious figure as well. Never mind the donkey's reputation for randiness in the ancient world. A prophet on a donkey, in the Hebrew context, is an obvious allusion to Balaam, he of the talking donkey: a comic figure, and not an admirable one.

Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, therefore, is either a mockery of Jesus, Jesus denying and deliberately humbling himself, or a mockery of both prophecy and kingship. Or both.

Jesus is playing the clown. Pretty literally—the floppy three-pointed cap and bells of the medieval fool were supposed to represent donkey's ears, and also probably allude to the king's crown. His bladder on a stick was a parody of the king's sceptre.

Surely you jest?

The crowd spreading palms before him possibly completes the joke: putting the tops of trees on the ground implies turning the world upside down. They seem to be heralding a period of misrule, a common part of many festivals, in which all the rules are turned upside down and the village fool rules temporarily as king.

So what is the point of all this? Don't ask; you cannot explain a joke. The point is to laugh. If one is genuinely laughing, from the heart, one is, for the moment, in the world but not of it. One is in the kingdom of God.

The comic vision of the world is the vision of Christianity.

Good thing I'm inconspicuous...

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