On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
-Mary Oliver, “The Poet Thinks About the Donkey,” from, Thirst
I’m reminded of this poem from Mary Oliver each year on Palm Sunday. I love the way she repeats the donkey’s “waiting,” her description of him being “what he alway had been: small, dark, obedient,” and her hope that he finally “lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.” Mustn’t we all do this from time to time—lift one dusty hoof and step forward? Most of all I’m struck by the importance of finding one’s own place in this Holy Week story that can feel larger than life.
One of my mentors, Peter Gomes, used to say the story of Easter is not about Jesus, it’s about us, and how we will respond to it. For the resurrection means nothing if we do not encounter the risen Christ and share of our encounter with others. The same is true of Holy Week. Yes, we follow Jesus as he makes his way through the final week of his earthly life. We reflect on what he may have felt—the joy of welcome, the tenderness of a final meal, the despair of betrayal and abandonment. And yet we miss something important if we do not find our own place within this story as one of those around Jesus.
To imagine ourselves as among the disciples who have walked with Jesus this far and yet still do not “get it.” To imagine ourselves among the religious authorities who feared the change and challenge Jesus brought. To imagine ourselves among the crowds of people looking for a hope and healing and wholeness. Even to imagine ourselves as the donkey he rode upon, doing his small part to lighten Jesus’ load on his way to the cross.
We will retell and reenact this story Thursday and Friday of this week, and hope to find our place within it. I hope you’ll find yourself among us as we do.