The Sunday before Easter is usually called Palm Sunday, recalling Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but it is also called Passion Sunday, complete with a different set of Bible readings from the lectionary, as the beginning of the Holy Week journey to the cross. Not surprisingly, churches prefer to make a big thing of the palm side of the occasion. It is less somber, the children get to wave palm branches and, let’s face it, everyone loves a winner.
Yet, I have always had trouble with this. If the story of Jesus’ entry on a donkey is historical it casts a shadow over Jesus. In the book of Zaccheus 9:9 we hear this messianic reference:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
In the story of Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness by Satan, the temptations were all attempts to lure Jesus into one of the roles expected of the Messiah. He refused them all, but if he really did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, he would have been evoking Jewish expectations of the messiah. For Jesus to do this would be to give into the temptation he had previously refused.
More likely, Jesus’ entry on a donkey is a story made up within a later Christian tradition in order to proclaim the belief that Jesus was the expected Messiah. This being the case, I think the passion emphasis is the best way to start Holy Week.