I was seven years old when I first learned the word circumnavigate. If that seems like a strange thing to remember, that’s because it is, but it was Palm Sunday, thirty-three years ago, that circumnavigate landed on my brain and never left. Fr. Aldrich, our priest, made us circumnavigate Trinity Red Bank by circumambulating it; it didn’t take much to walk around Trinity, maybe the equivalent of a couple city blocks, but when you’re seven and had to carry a torch it seemed pretty far. Over the course of the following 20 some-odd years we circumnavigated that area in the sun and rain, cold and heat; it makes me glad for side aisles so we don’t have to go roaming about outside this morning.
Jesus did His share of ambulating (and presumable circumnavigating), as unless you were pretty rich, you walked pretty much everywhere. Horses were fairly rare (before the 10th Century, donkeys were the animal of choice) and for the rich, the royalty, and the military, and so maybe if you were a fairly well-off Jewish guy in 1st Century Palestine, maybe you had a donkey, and if you had a donkey you were more likely to use it to carry your stuff, not yourself.
That’s not to say that the donkey was the animal of the humble. “Riding the donkey not considered a mark of humility. Rich people and important people rode on this animal. Of Abraham Scripture records that he “rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass” (Genesis 22:3). Concerning one of the judges it was said, “And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years. And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities” (Judges 10:3, 4). Also Achsah, the daughter of Caleb (Judges 1:14), and Abigail, the wife of wealthy Nabal (I Samuel 25:23), each rode on [a donkey].”1
Jesus, for His part, walked almost everywhere He went. His foster-father Joseph likely had a donkey or perhaps shared one with a fellow craftsman, which would have made it possible to make enough money for all those trips to Jerusalem for the Passover each year, not to mention get his Holy Family down to Egypt and away from the evil Herod.
Now, the donkey was not necessarily a sign of humility, but it was always a sign of peace. “The horse has usually symbolized times of war, but the donkey, times of peace. In Old Testament times this was especially true from the days of King Solomon (who had, contrary to the Lord’s command, thousands of horses). This [idea of the donkey symbolizing peace] helps to explain the words of the prophet about the Messiah that were fulfilled in the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9; cf. John 12:15). Here the use by Jesus of the donkey was to signify that He was Prince of Peace, rather than Captain of an army, when He entered the Holy City.”2
Jesus entered Jerusalem as a Prince, the princely Messiah of God, hailed as the One sent to save His people, to break the yoke of their oppressors. Jesus rode into the city in triumph, but the donkey was not His final conveyance. Jesus got down off the donkey, back onto His feet, and began again to walk toward the Cross.
Now it’s our turn, our turn to pat the donkey on the head, get on our feet and walk with Jesus. We must get on our feet in humble service to the Lord and to our neighbor, as we will do with our Lord at the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday. We must get on our feet to grab our crosses so that we might be worthy to stand at the foot of His Cross on Good Friday. Today we get started toward Easter, so however you get moving: walking, rolling, crawling, whatever you got, let’s go.