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As Easter draws near it’s easy to forget that the days leading up to the festival are the holiest in the Christian calendar. It all begins a week before Easter Day with Palm Sunday, the day when we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being greeted as a king. On that day people waved palm branches in front of him in greeting and put their cloaks on the road for the animal to walk on.
Palm Sunday is rich in meaning. Nowadays most churches distribute palm crosses to their congregations – simple crosses made out of palm leaves, now often imported from countries in the developing world. Some churches take the opportunity for an outdoor procession, complete with donkey.
The donkey is itself an important symbol. Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem on an impressive horse, which is what an earthly, conquering king might have done. Riding on a donkey was a sign of his coming in peace.
When I was a curate in Oxford, several of the city centre churches were anxious to procure a donkey for their Palm Sunday processions. Unfortunately in that part of the world donkeys are in short supply and the nearest donkey sanctuary was around 20 miles away. Nonetheless, I was confident (as curates tend to be) that I had sourced a donkey, only to find, just before the big day, that a neighbouring vicar had snaffled it. It was with a certain sense of Schadenfreude that we woke up on Palm Sunday morning to heavy rain. And the sanctuary was not prepared to take the risk of its donkey’s feet slipping on the city streets.
In my last parish things seemed more promising, as there was a field with two donkeys right next to the church. Unfortunately one refused to come without the other and they were in any case too wayward to take part in any kind of procession. Nonetheless it was always good to see them in their field, not least because both of them had the distinctive markings of a cross on their back, which folklore attributes to the story of Palm Sunday when Jesus came on a donkey to the city where he would be crucified.
That Palm Sunday donkey has always captured people’s imaginations, not least that of GK Chesterton, whose poem “The Donkey” describes the beast as “the devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things”. That poem ends with the wonderful verse:
“Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.”
We can’t offer you a donkey at All Saints. But if you would like to come to our morning services on 14 April, you can most certainly have a palm cross.
Our services: Holy Communion on Sundays at 9.30 am and 11.00 am and on Wednesdays at 10.00 am. Taizé worship on alternate Thursdays at 5.30 pm: next service 11 April.
Chaplain: The Revd Dr Paula Clifford
Tel: 922 38 40 38; Email: paulaclifford4@gmail.com