Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the day that marks the joyous entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. As in every other occasion of his earthly time among us, our expectations are reversed, and we are surprised again by a world turned upside down. It was not a warrior’s stallion that bore Jesus through the gates and over the cloaks and palms strewn across his path. But rather, a 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
Of 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, “The Donkey”
This divine reversal was one of many. Certainly, a king would be born in a palace, right? A birth announcement made to the Senate, greeted by delegations of the political class? Oh, no. This king was born to an obscure teenage girl, huddled in an animal shelter with news of the event told to sheepherders, followed by troops looking for a child to kill. Certainly, this rabbi would preach about victories, health, and prosperity, right? Not quite, but the meek, grieving, and poor listened closely. And a few days after the cheering throngs welcome him and his donkey to the capital, Jesus took off his cloak, knelt down, and washed twelve pairs of feet.
When we are in pain or are in fear of death for ourselves, or (worse yet) in fear for the life of someone we love… when we are in mental anguish, unable to act or sleep, feeling forgotten and abandoned… when we feel least like the whole and wonderful person we know we were once, it is then that the manger, the donkey, the sermon, and the wash basin should all remind us of one important truth. Jesus came looking for us. It is alright to be low. It is alright to be humbled. In fact, there are times when those are the best things to be. When our own world is turned upside down and all we can sense in ourselves is weakness and disappointment, that is when we are closest to the loving God and the miraculous strength that we can call upon.
Conversely, when things are going swimmingly, and we bestride this narrow world like a Colossus, that is when we should be on the spiritual alert. Not just because things in life can turn around suddenly and bite us someplace painful—(a dramatic reversal of fortune that Aristotle called peripety)—but because our dials should always be tuned to the Humility setting. With the needle set to Humble, we not only become more aware of our shortcomings but we can more clearly see the needs of others.
Alleviating grief, sitting with the depressed, or getting on our knees to scrub the floor of someone who is sick is not an option. It is a command straight from the mouth of our Master. The day before Good Friday is called “Maundy Thursday,” from the Latin mandatum meaning “commandment.” Jesus said to his friends, who were clearly creeped out about his taking on the role of a house servant and washing their toes, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
And by love, he is not talking about the super fun kind of someone you just saw from across a crowded room. Jesus is talking about devoted service and sacrifice. You have suffered. You know what you needed when you were trying to claw your way up from the bottom. Be to someone else the person that you needed. Remember that we belong to each other.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)