On Passion Sunday, more years than not, I give a children’s sermon. At the conclusion of the procession with palms and the Prayer of the Day, with the kids arrayed near the chancel, I selecte a kid as Jesus. We are going to enact the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (Scholars may quibble as to exactly how triumphal the entry in fact was, but I never bothered the kids with that.)
I pick a kid up (always the smallest I can find; my disk, you know) and as he rides into Jerusalem, the other children are to cheer and flourish their palm branches shouting “hosanna.” This usually requires several tries before they get to shouting with any real energy.
This wasn’t my children’s sermon; I stole it. I first saw it done in 1978 by Rev. David Risch of Faith Lutheran Church in Whitehall, Ohio, when I was a seminarian and he my pastoral mentor.
He arranged the kids on the chancel steps, picked one of them up, declared the child Jesus, and processed into Jerusalem. The children cheered and the palms were waved.
Passing before the children he paused and asked them, if Jesus borrowed the donkey would he return it like he promised?
Of course he would, the kids agreed. Does Jesus keep his promises? Yes. If he promises to love you, will he keep that promise too? Yes, yes, yes. And so, Jesus entered Jerusalem.
I found this such a charming approach that it became my default every Passion Sunday. I always asked, how did Jesus get the donkey?
If they listened to the Processional Gospel they could have figured out that Jesus borrowed it, which is what they were supposed to say. This would neatly lead to the question, if he borrowed it, will he bring it back? Then on to the other promises Jesus keeps.
But whether they paid attention to the Gospel reading or not, their actual answers to the question “where did Jesus get the donkey” depended to large degree upon the community environment where they lived.
In the Detroit inner-city neighborhood where I did my pastoral residency, the children’s consensus was that Jesus likely stole it. Out in rural Nebraska a fifth grader was of the opinion that Jesus got the donkey from the same place his dad got livestock, at the sale barn. In a Southside Chicago parish a kid asked, “What’s a donkey?” I did my best to clear up misunderstandings.
There was one drawback: If the kid I carried was Jesus, well, everybody knew who the donkey was, didn’t they.
This is all a roundabout way of calling to mind John Mason Neale (1818–1866). Neale translated into English the Latin hymn Gloria, laus et honor written by the hymnist, St. Theodulph of Orleans (d. 821). We know the hymn today as All Glory, Laud, and Honor, a traditional Passion Sunday entrance hymn.
While otherwise faithful to the Latin, Neal nonetheless thought it prudent to omit one verse from his translation:
Be Thou, O Lord, the Rider,
And we the little ass,
That to God’s holy city
Together we may pass.
While there is evidence the line was in use until the seventeenth century, the verse was perhaps too rude for the more refined worshipers of later centuries. No American hymnal has ever included it—wisely, I think. There is little point giving small boys reason for snickering in church; they can usually find their own reasons without any assistance.
But that verse brings to mind yet another donkey, this one from the pen of G. K. Chesterton:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
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.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Churchin Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.