Jennifer Garrison Brownell
She’s had her 15 minutes of fame for a couple of months at least, but I just tuned in this week to the live feed of the giraffe named April, resident of and adventure park zoo in New York state, as she paces around in her little pen, waiting to go into labor.
Have you been watching? As I was working on the computer one day this week – I kept open a window in youtube and clicked to it occasionally – marveling each time at the number in the lower right part of the screen that tells how many other people are viewing. It goes up and down, but the day I was paying the most attention it kept hovering around 200 – 220, 000 viewers. 220,000! Yesterday, I looked again and it was up over a million. Even if it was people like me who kept the window open while they were doing other things, it was amazed that so many of us were interested enough to watch a giraffe do…really nothing.
Why, I wondered? What was the spectacle about? Maybe it’s the cuteness of giraffes – their silly little heads, their improbable long legs, their unusual markings. Or maybe it is the strength and resilience of this particular giraffe, who has been in something like labor, “about to give birth any day now” since at least mid-february, since we began our Lenten journey. And all the while, as giraffes do in the wild to protect their newborn calves from predators, not really showing any of the outward signs of labor.
There’s no way to know for sure why we are so intrigued by April, me and those 206, 523 who are watching rnow according to the counter, as I write this, it’s boring because nothing happens and yet it’s thrilling – there’s a baby in there! It could emerge at any moment. Now that I think of it, maybe it has something to do with the contradictions of it – the combination of cuteness and resilience, of something that seems at once completely natural and wholesome and also a little vulgar (youtube did ban the feed for a while, after all), of vulnerability and strength. It’s irresistible, we cant look away – we wonder what side will she show next?
Maybe this irresistible combination – vulnerability and strength – is why both those who actually gathered to see Jesus ride into town on that first palm Sunday, and the rest of the town who hears the rumors in whispers and shouted hosannas, are drawn to him, to Jesus – the humble king, the servant savior, the peaceful warrior, the walking contradiction.
Dorothy Allison in her Two or Three Things I Know For Sure quotes her aunt: “Lord, girl, there’s only two or three things I know for sure. Only two or three things. That’s right. Of course it’s never the same things, and I’m never as sure as I’d like to be.”
One of those two or three things for me – always changing and never as sure as I’d like to be – is this story, familiar as it is. It is strange and new every time. The version we heard today spends a long time on the logistics – I love heist caper movies and it reminds me of the long set up required to pull off a successful heist.
“Go to this man, give him the magic words “The Lord requests…” then he will give you the….” Certainly there’s a sense of the furtive here – the word used to describe the disciples going to Bethpage to pick up the donkey, translated here “they WENT” to town can also be translated “they SLIPPED INTO” (D Mark Davis – Left Behind and Loving It blog) town. And when they get there, it’s not just one donkey, but two. A donkey and a colt. A baby donkey.
Ok, two or three things I know for sure about this story. And one of those has been all the 47 years that I’ve heard this story until this year is that Jesus rode a male (or jack) donkey into town. Don’t ask me why I thought this – a sermon about our unnecessary attribution of gender to so many beyond-gendered beings in this world will have to wait for another day – but I always imagined that donkey to be a boy – a guy, a dude, a jack. But listen, the disciples picked up the donkey, and the donkey’s baby. Now I don’t know much about donkeys, but since I am now, like the 111,613 other people who are currently watching April, a giraffe natal scientist, I can tell you that male giraffes are interested only in three things – mating, eating and fighting. None of those are all that compatible with child rearing, so when it comes to that part of giraffe life, the males bow out and leave the calves to the mothers.
The calves and their mothers. Suddenly, watching April pace around her pen this week, it clicked into place. That donkey that Jesus rode was not a boy, as I had always imagined, but a female. And not just female, but a nursing mother, accompanied by her wobbly legged colt, who tagged along, looking forward to each pause in the parade, so it could get ahold of something to drink, just like all nursing beings do.
Jesus, wasn’t, as we sometimes imagine, riding both a donkey and a colt – swinging his leg over two animals like some weirdly stretchy superhero. He came to town carried by a two for one deal – a mother donkey, and tucked underneath in that safe warm curve her belly where all nursing beings keep their babies – a colt.
Jesus arrived into the world an infant as his mother’s breast. This week, he greets the cheering crowds, who will soon enough turn to jeering mobs, he prepares to meet his death while riding on a donkey who is still nursing its foal. His life, the life of man who walked the earth – teaching, healing, challenging, loving – is bracketed by these two images of maternal intimacy, vulnerability and compassion.
Two or three things I know for sure – never the same two or three and never as sure as I’d like to be. Jesus, who are you for sure? We are asking now, same as they did back in his own day. When the crowds shouted save us, save us (hosanna, hosanna), they meant save us from the imperial rule, be a king, be a warrior, kill for us. When he came to them riding not a powerful stallion – a deeply masculine image of power, authority and violence – but instead a small nursing animal, he let them know that he was not the kind of savior they expected, not the kind of warrior hero they hoped for. No wonder the whole town was buzzing in confusion, asking “Who is this?”
“The human mother will suckle her child with her own milk, but our beloved Mother, Jesus, feeds us with himself, and, with the most tender courtesy, does it by means of the Blessed Sacrament, the precious food of all true life… “ Julian of Norwich wrote these words after receiving a divine revelation in 1373. Maybe today is the day for sermon that moves beyond gender after all. For Julian, Jesus was not just associated with Mothers, he WAS a mother – she used mother and he in the same sentence – showing us Jesus universality, his ability unique in the history of the world to embody seeming opposites at the same time.
Who is this? The people asked. The one who associates himself not with spears and shields, but with the vulnerability of a baby animal, in all its adorable lovability, in all its unlikely resilience. The one who is both courageous and tender, both strong and vulnerable. The one who is both brother and mother, both savior and servant.
Today we begin the walk with Jesus into the week we call Holy. Who is Jesus? The whole town asks in turmoil. Here is their answer: This week, Jesus is the one who preaches peace instead of the sword, yet this week he will also take a whip to those who are taking advantage of the poor. Jesus is the one who eats with those he calls friends, including the one he knows will betray him to his death. He is the one who bravely faces grueling torture, and who also cries tears of blood for fear and pain. Jesus is the one who talks intimately with God, calling God Daddy, and who also shouts that God has abandoned him.
Two or three things I know for sure, never the same two or three. Never as sure as I’d like to be. Here’s one, for this Sunday, for this week, for the passion journey ahead of us. If we look Jesus in the face, if we listen to the words he spoke, if we watch the actions he took, we will always, always, always see something new, something we have not seen before. Sometimes what we see will be contradictory. If that is the case, keep looking. Look harder. Keep asking “who is this?”