A King on a Donkey| National Catholic Register

SCRIPTURES & ART: God tests us, but he never tests us beyond our strength.

Last Sunday, Jesus told us in the Gospel that his followers must take up their cross and follow him. This week, he tells us, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” A Christian might be forgiven if he asks: which is it?

As we answered last week, it’s both. To follow Christ inevitably must take his disciple to Calvary: taking up one’s cross is not a discretionary option for the Christian. But as we noted in quoting the Russian Orthodox theologian Ignatius Brianchaninov: “The cross is only burdensome as long as it is our own cross. When it is transformed into the Cross of Christ, it takes on an extraordinary lightness, ‘for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30) said the Lord.”

God tests us, but he never tests us beyond our strength. The French poet, Charles Péguy, captured this dynamic when, in a poem (“Freedom”) in which God the Father speaks, he says:

How often do I wish and am I tempted to put my hand under their stomachs
In order to hold them up with my big hand
Just like a father teaching his son how to swim
In the current of the river
And who is divided between two ways of thinking.
For on the one hand, if he holds him up all the time and if he holds him too much,
The child will depend on this and will never learn how to swim.
But if he doesn’t hold him up just at the right moment
That child is bound to swallow more water than is healthy for him.
In the same way, when I teach them how to swim amid their trials
I too am divided by two ways of thinking.

Of course, God is not “divided” — his Providence knows what we need and when we need it to swim in the waters of life. It’s we who fail to trust his supportive hand. The popular poem “Footprints” captures that. The speaker recalls the most trying times of his life and sees but one pair of footprints during them. Revealing his lack of trust in God, he asks how God could leave him in those moments. God’s reply is telling: “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you, never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Jesus’ Passion was real, but he suffered to bear us to the Father. Whatever we do to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24) is to follow freely in the footsteps of Christ to bear our brothers and sisters to the Father out of love. (For an explanation of this verse from Colossians, see here.) For that reason, our “yoke is easy and our burden light” because “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” (For the origins of that saying in Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town, see here).

God’s love for us, revealed in Jesus’ humble “obedience unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), is illustrated in the First Reading. Zechariah speaks of the arrival of Jerusalem’s King “meek, and riding on an ass, a colt, the foal of an ass” (2:9). Kings in the ancient world did not arrive on donkeys. They arrived on elephants, preceded by grand processions of camels and other beasts to the sound of trumpet blasts.

The Messianic King of whom Zechariah speaks, the King who would “proclaim peace to the nations and … dominion … to the ends of the earth” is Jesus Christ. Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled on the first Palm Sunday; the promise of “peace” was delivered by the Messiah, along with the power to forgive sins, on the first Easter evening. That is why Jesus dispatched his Apostles to borrow a donkey (“the Master needs it”) on that Palm Sunday. The King enters Zion on an ass, just as the unborn king, 33 years earlier, arrived in the royal city of Bethlehem on a donkey.

Our go-to source for religious art, late-19th-century French painter James Tissot, captures that moment in his watercolor, “La Cortège dans les rues de Jérusalem” (The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem), part of his larger series on the Life of Christ held by the Brooklyn Museum (but not on view). Jesus is the focus of attention, but slightly off center stage, as his humility might demonstrate. As is usual in a Tissot painting, he is in pure white. His arrival is framed by the gate and walls of Jerusalem, with loyal/fickle subjects all around. (One crowd cheers him on Sunday; another wants his life on Friday.) A very limited color palette serves to refocus the viewer’s eye on Jesus in the brightest white and puts the entire scene in bold relief. Less brightly colored cloaks — many red — line the path: a king should not tread the bare earth but have a red carpet, even if he will paint those stones red with his own blood in five days. But he will do so in humble love, taking up his cross as he supports us with ours.

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