Sunday, April 13, 2014

National Poetry Month—Entering Jerusalem on an Ass

This is Psalm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week for Christians, the last week of Lent that runs through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. 
To review in case you missed the book, the itinerant preacher known to us as Jesus of Nazareth, decided to return to Jerusalem for the first time since he took up his tour of dusty provincial villages and towns less than two years earlier.  Evidently this was his first visit since he had lectured the Pharisees and scribes at the Temple when he was 13.  While wandering the countryside the former carpenter had been picking up disciples and speaking to ever larger crowds impressed by the miracles—or sorcery to hear some speak of it.  Rumors were flying that he might be the long promised Messiah come to save the Jewish people.
This prospect carried not only a religious promise, but a political one.  It came as rebellion was brewing against Roman occupation, and the imposed rule by the Herodian Dynasty in Judea.  Rumors of Jesus’s arrival, just days before Passover, evidently stirred excitement in the city.  Likely one of the Disciples entered the city ahead of him as some sort of advance man, because when he appeared at a city gate, throngs were there to meet him.
Jesus chose to enter the city riding on an ass, a common conveyance and beast of burden in that part of the world.  Nothing particularly unusual about it.  Hundreds probably passed through the gates every day in just such a manner.  And his story had long been associated with the beast from the journey of his mother Mary and her husband Joseph to Bethlehem for a census, to his birth in a stable and the family’s flight to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
Riding the ass would become a symbol of humility, although it should be noted that Jesus’s disciples and other followers evidently entered the city with him on foot, so that he had some elevation of status. 
The story goes that as he entered the city throngs surrounded him waving palm fronds and casting their garments before the feet of the ass as carpet and they cheered him as the King of the Jews.  It seems that the Prophet Zechariah had foretold, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Local authorities, both Jewish and Roman, took a dim view of the hoopla and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the Cross and if you are an orthodox Christian, the Resurrection.
Jesus himself seemed to be ambivalent about the proclamation of his kingship. He would not exactly renounce it, but later say that “My Kingdom is not of this World.”
As interpreted later by the Greeks and the Latin Church, the entry on the ass was especially contrasted to riding a horse, a symbol of earthly power and war.
As you can see, the story of Palm Sunday contains a veritable Russian nesting doll of symbolism within symbolism, the very stuff poets cut their teeth on.  So it was with high hopes that I embarked on a search for great poetry for the occasion.  Sadly, there is far less than you would imagine.  Oh, I could find tons of poetry for children retelling the tale in simplified form.  If you went to Sunday School, you probably got some on handouts or had to learn to recite some for a pageant.  And there is also a lot of very earnest and very bad poetry.  The good stuff, harder to find.  But I plucked three for your consideration.
Henry Vaughan was a 17th Century Welsh physician and metaphysical poet.  He was not a native English speaker but evidently learned in college.  He experienced a great religious epiphany in middle age and became famed for his spiritual work.  His short poem is both evocative and joyful.

Psalm Sunday
Hark! how the children shrill and high
Hosanna cry,
Their joys provoke the distant sky,
Where thrones and seraphims reply,
And their own angels shine and sing
In a bright ring:
Such young, sweet mirth
Makes heaven and earth
Join in a joyful symphony.
—Henry Vaughan
Probably the best known modern Palm Sunday poem was written by the leading English writer G. K. Chesterton, lay theologian, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, critic, and Christian apologist.  A self-described orthodox Christian, he composed this poem, rife with the irony and paradox for which he was best known, shortly before abandoning High Church Anglicanism for Catholicism.  

The Donkey

    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.

   G.K. Chesterton
My search for a contemporary poem was the hardest.  I could not find something that did not take the story literally.  I yearned for a poet who would dig deeper and find a personal understanding in the story.  I finally found one on, a site where amateur poets post their work in hopes of recognition.  It is filled with tens of thousands of submission, most exactly what you might expect.  Luckily they are searchable by subject.  This poem finally turned up.  I know absolutely nothing about Elena Green other than that her posted photo shows a woman in early middle age.  Unlike other posters, she offered no personal information or any explanation of her work.  A further search on the web under her name turned up nothing.  But clearly, she has some gifts.

Palm Sunday I

Search my heart
This blessed wilderness
Search the avenues of my soul.
Call the wind to witness
That promises are met.
I miss you in daylight
Your glowing skin everywhere.
Your verdant tresses covering me.
I hide in corners of your garden.
Paradise inside me
On this temperate day.
Children running free
Yet my hearts still in captivity.
Free me from myself
O Blessed landscape
Free me from the bonds of love.
Let me wander like a wild rose—
Let loose my spirit softly
Like a petal on a breeze.

—Elena Green

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