Mention Palm Sunday, and what do you think of? A church full of people waving palm fronds? Likely it's the so-called "Triumphal Entry" of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as onlookers crowd around, with palm branches and shouting "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"
I'd like to address some of these points. First, this is one of the few events mentioned in all four gospels, and all of them mention some variant on the "Hosanna!" quote. But what does Hosanna mean? Well, it means something like "oh, save! Save now!" Yet for some reason over the years church people have diluted the word such that, even when they know what it really means, they act as if it's just an expression of praise, like hallelujah (which is literally "praise the Lord"). We sing it in the choruses of songs. For example, "Holy holy holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory! Hosanna!" But the word really has little to do with the verse in that context. So I'd like to explore what the word means in the context of Palm Sunday, and perhaps in our lives today.
Hosanna is a cry of desperation. It comes from a people in need. It says, "I need someone else to rescue me. My situation is beyond me. Help me! Save us!" Which is why I chose the song I did. When the crowds who have seen the things Jesus had done approach him, many believing him to be the promised Messiah, they cry out in expectation that he is the one who can finally save them. Save them from the Romans, save them from their poverty, save them from their disease, and usher in an era of peace and righteousness. The psalms are filled with writers asking "how long until you save us, Lord?" and often this is a salvation from enemies who are said to surround the writer. These people aren't just standing around saying "God is good!" They are calling, "Somebody save me!"
Is it an expression of jubilant praise? Not exactly, but sort of. You see, it's followed by "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Put yourself back into ancient times for a moment and imagine that you are a peasant. All your life you hope that the king or someone important will learn of your plight and send aid. Or in modern terms, perhaps it's like some poor nation begging the U.S. for foreign aid or military assistance. Then one day a man comes in the King's authority to say that the King knows about you and is bringing food, water, and medicine. So you rejoice when the King's emissary comes. That's what they're saying. They are acknowledging Jesus as Messiah, as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, that is, with the power and authority from God to fix things for them. So saying "Save now!" in that context, is to say, "I acknowledge that you can save us, that you are here now to save us. So save me! Don't delay, and don't forget me personally!" It's on one hand saying "I need it," but on the other hand saying, "Yes! The thing I've hoped for is finally coming!" So "hosanna" becomes an interesting cry of both desperation and anticipation. It's saying "Do it! Do it now!" I think of it in the context of the chorus from John Lennon's "Bring On the Lucie (Freda People)". I think I'll include that one here too. That's part of what hosanna means. "Free the people now! Do it, do it, do it, do it now!"
[incidentally, I'm mostly focusing on the chorus here. Some of you may be offended by my posting this song here, but it's for illustrative purposes. There may be things in the verses you don't think belong here. I'm not going to comment, but it's not my intention to offend but to educate.You're free to not push play.]
There's almost a kind of activism to it. It reminds me a bit of the sorts of things we heard from Obama supporters and voters back in 2008. Some people expected him to be this great Messiah figure for them. I'm not trying to get political here and I won't comment further on that as it would be a long digression. But there was an expectation that here was someone who could change things, and promised "hope and change". And so when people stood and shouted "Yes we can!" you can see a similarity to ancient Jews and Greeks crying "Hosanna!" (I could comment on Obama's declining support numbers since then and compare that to the crowds crying "crucify him!" on Good Friday, but I'll leave that there.)
Calling "hosanna" to Jesus is like a personal shout to a powerful figure asking him to take note of you and do something for the people. In a sense, one might say that "Hosanna!" had more in common with "Hey hey, LBJ" than with "praise you, Jesus!" even though the latter is how we think of it. Sometimes that "do it now!" aspect has an intense desperation. Churches don't talk about that side of things as often; they want to focus on joy and goodness, and that's fine. But as people, our emotions fluctuate and can be very intense, and we're not always on top of the world. So maybe for you "hosanna" doesn't mean, "Yay God! Salavation's here!" Maybe for you, "hosanna" means "Why don't you do something already?" Because even as Christians, we have times when we're just pounding on the ceiling, shouting at God, "Do something!" Those are desperate moments. Those are times all you can say is, "Hosanna," that is, "just save me now." Do it, do it, do it now. Those are moments you need a savior.
Something else to think about is the expectation these people had of Jesus. Just why on this day of all days were the people out in full force? Why now were they crowding and honoring and laying their clothes on the ground for his procession? The last time Jesus was in the area, he angered the religious leaders so much that they tried to kill him. According to John's gospel, Jesus fled and went into hiding. It was there that he got news his friend Lazarus was sick. And Jesus delayed in going to help him. When he finally went, Thomas famously said, "Let us also go, that we might die with him." At this point, there's an expectation that returning to the Jerusalem area will not be end well for him. Of course, Jesus knew why he had come and that he was going to be crucified. But it's worth noting that Thomas at least anticipated it could end badly for all of them. After he raises Lazarus from the dead, he slips into hiding again, but Passover is fast approaching. News of Lazarus has spread. And so when Jesus visits the family in Bethany again, word gets to Jerusalem that Jesus is around again. Speculation is high that he'll be in the city for Passover, as any good Jew. So the Pharisees essentially put out an APB on Jesus, wanting to know when he gets in. Given all this context, I'm sure people in the city were wondering whether he'd actually show up. It must have been known among some of them that he had a price on his head. And yet multitudes had seen miraculous things he had done. For Jesus to come back to the city now was more than just a visit: it was an act of defiance. Now add in the dash of Messianic prophecy from Zechariah: "Your king is coming on the colt of a donkey." When you see Jesus coming on a donkey, or even when word spreads from the owner of the donkey from whom it was borrowed that Jesus had taken it, it would seem he's here now to buck the establishment. It would be safe to stay in Bethany. But he's coming back because the people need him. That must have been encouraging to the disenfranchised of Jerusalem, or the visitors who have only heard about this mystery man who does wonders. Surely even doubters of Jesus' anointing might call "Save now!" as if to say, "If it's really you, than do it already! Prove it!"
I'd like to take a moment to examine the phrase "hosanna in the highest" which I have never fully understood, even as a kid. The phrase appears in both Matthew and Mark, the earliest of the four gospels. "Hosanna" I get, but in the highest what? Highest heaven? Highest degree? Highest places? Are they saying "save us from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads"? "Save now on the ground, and save now in the rooftops and high towers"? That's an interesting reading. From that perspective it might mean "go into the fortresses of the authorities in their lofty towers, bring them down and save us!" "Highest heaven" is an interesting reading, a praise that reaches to God. That is, to cry "Save us!" until it resounds in the throne room of heaven. Or does it mean "to the ultimate degree", as in "I'm asking you to help me as loud as I can"? Is "Hosanna in the highest" like saying "Help me, help me, a thousand times help me!"?
Interestingly, Luke's gospel doesn't use the phrase "Hosanna in the highest". Instead, it says "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" Now, glory in the highest I understand. That WOULD mean heavenly realms. Part of me wonders of the cacophony of shouts that day lead people to hear the words "Hosanna" and "in the highest" apart from each other but simultaneously. Some shouting, "hosanna" and some shouting "glory in the highest" and "hosanna in the highest" becomes a remembrance of hearing the two at once. Luke makes a point of starting his gospel by saying he's seen and read other accounts, and he set out to make an orderly account based on eyewitness reports. So I do wonder whether anyone ever actually used the phrase "hosanna in the highest" that day. But if they did, perhaps it was with Luke's intent: on one hand acknowledging Jesus as having the power to save, and praising God to the heavens for it.
The phrase shouted that day was not one just randomly spoken by people. It was quoting a well-known psalm, Psalm 118 in the Christian Bible. This psalm gets a lot of mention in the New Testament, because it's where it is prophesied, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." This scripture is applied to Jesus by Peter, Paul, and others in the New Testament. And just after that portion of the psalm, it reads (in the New King James Version):
Save now [that is, Hosanna], I pray, O Lord;
O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.
God is the Lord,
And He has given us light;
Bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.
This portion helps to further elucidate what they meant by "hosanna" that day. It was a prayer. It was a call for prosperity. What is prosperity? The sense that you have a future, that you will not just continue, but thrive. It's a call for needs to be provided for, for health, for security, for relief. And it is also very interesting that they recall the phrase "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" that day. Earlier in the psalm comes a section that suggests what coming "in the name of the Lord" means to these people. In verses 10-12, three times surrounding enemies are mentioned and each time the psalmist says, "But in the name of the Lord, I will destroy them." So again, you can imagine that when people start recalling these words and calling them out that day how they would catch like wildfire as an anthemic shout. That's what people expected from Jesus: that he was here to destroy those surrounding them.
One final note of exposition about that psalm is the sacrifice mentioned. I find it fascinating that immediately following the phrases chanted on Palm Sunday it says "God has given us light; bind the sacrifice to the altar." The two ideas seem unconnected until you consider Jesus. To the Christian, Jesus is the Light of the World (a constant theme in John's gospel), and is also the ultimate Passover sacrifice. The image of a sacrifice bound to the horns of the altar suggests parallel with Christ as the sacrifice bound and affixed to the cross. Perhaps the psalmist, unaware, was prophesying a sacrificial suffering Messiah even as much as a conquering one. In Jesus is both, for in Him is the true salvation.
That's a good thought to end on, and I could stop right there, but let's examine the other obvious element of Palm Sunday: the palms. The gospels never say that people waved palms that day. And yet that's how we always remember it. What they do say is that people laid their clothes down on the ground before Jesus, and others cut palm branches and laid them down as well. They were giving him the red carpet treatment, as it were; the gentlemanly act of throwing your coat over a puddle. John's gospel does simply say that people "took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him", but doesn't explicitly state that they were put on the ground, as other gospels do. It's interesting that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all mention the clothes in the road, but Luke doesn't mention palms. Wouldn't it have been interesting if waving your coat around in church had become the custom on Palm Sunday! We'd call it "Coat Sunday" or something. Maybe we'd even collect coats for the needy, by having people throw extra coats into the middle isle and then distributing them as needed in the coming weeks. Actually, that's not a bad idea. But anyway, the waving of palm fronds is not explicit to this section of Scripture.
But the Spirit of God has sense of humor, it seems, for there is a time of year when Jews all gather together bearing palms. It is not Passover, but the holiday of Sukkot, which falls in the, um, fall. You might know it from your Bible as the Feast of Tabernacles. During this time, they are commanded to erect temporary structures (sukkot, plural of sukkah) and to take for themselves, among other things, a palm leaf. In Hebrew it's called the lulav. As I was researching the lulav again today out of curiosity to what it's meaning might be for Palm Sunday, a connection to Sukkot was revealed. It is from Zechariah we get the Palm Sunday prophecy that the King of Israel would come lowly and riding on a donkey. But in the final chapter, Zechariah provides another image regarding the King. It is in Zechariah 14: 16.
"And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles." Did you catch that? After the Messianic King is established, all the people will keep the Feast of Tabernacles. What's that? Sukkot! Which means everyone will come to Jerusalem and take up his lulav! And this seems to include Gentiles too. So I'm amused that God seems to have, over the centuries, used Palm Sunday among the Gentile Christian churches to prefigure this future day. Just as during that "Triumphal Entry" the people gathered from all around in Jerusalem to recognize the King, so too will all peoples do the same once again, and they will do it with palm branches. If you got a palm branch at church today, think about that over the coming week. It's not just a sign of praise and acknowledgment of Jesus. Think of it as a connection to your Jewish brothers and sisters, for the day is coming where we will be sundered no more, and all shall keep the same festivals.
How then shall we conclude these things? I guess what I would like you to take away from all these random thoughts is a deeper, emotional connection to the word "Hosanna". Throughout the week, I want to focus on a theme of rising. Rising up from depression, rising out of ashes, rising from death. In this case, perhaps an uprising of sorts against the forces of this present darkness that you are wrestling against. Raise your hand and shout "Hosanna!" to the highest heaven because your King is coming, and he comes with power to save. So go ahead and ask him to save you. Whatever salvation it is you need, he is able to provide it. Jesus said, "Ask, and it shall be given to you." So don't be afraid to say "Somebody save me!"