The rowdy crowd that cheers Jesus into Jerusalem is rather extravagant, don’t you think? It’s one thing to strip roadside trees of their branches. Branches grow back. It’s another to throw your cloak down for the donkey to walk on. I doubt the street sweepers had gone out early to clean the road before Jesus arrived, and I doubt the donkey was careful where it stepped or where it, er, made additions to the road. And front hooves are a donkey’s weapons. Besides the damage the hooves might do to cloth laid down on a rough road, think of the trampling crowds that no doubt fell in behind Jesus and followed him over those cloaks into the city.
Cloaks were a necessity in the biblical world. The Law given on Sinai says, “If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?” (Ex 22:25-27). God reinforces the commandment with a bit of a threat: “If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:27).
But here they are, the people in the crowd, throwing down their cloaks before Jesus. Theirs is the same instinct that rolls out red carpets for arriving dignitaries or celebrities. Tree branches are all very well, but a well woven cloak, now there’s a mark of honor!
However, after Jesus had gone on into the city, the owners of the cloak will find themselves with good garments crumpled, soiled and probably torn. This rather tempers the beauty of the exhortation of St. Andrew of Crete, an 8th century bishop, read at the Office of Readings for Palm Sunday. He urges us, “Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.” Yes, but look what happens to those garments and branches!
And we know very well from the gospel what advice Jesus gives about worn out and tattered cloaks: "No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one. Otherwise, he will tear the new and the piece from it will not match the old cloak” (Luke 5:36). There is nothing to do with the torn cloak, he suggests, but throw it away and get a new one.
But that is exactly what the approach of Easter promises us! We should have spent Lent stripping off the old cloaks, sin-woven and sin-stained, which no longer fit us, as directed by the Letter to the Ephesians: “you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires” (Eph 4:22). That “old self” was never anything but the false cloak that hides and smothers the identity with which humanity arrived, brand-new, in Eden: “ God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). At Easter, either newly baptized or with our baptismal identity renewed, we will be given a new cloak: “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:27.)
So we don’t need those old cloaks anymore. Why not go ahead and throw them down in the road for that donkey to trample as we honor Jesus on his way to the death that made new cloaks possible? As St. Andrew puts it: “So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him…. [L]et us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”
©2013, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, CO 80536