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Sunday Sharing

Palm Sunday

Hosanna!  Save us!


On Palm Sunday, our church and churches all over the world ring with the singing of “Hosanna!”  This exclamation is taken from Psalm 118 (v.25).  In the psalm translation I use for my daily Morning and Evening Prayer, “Hosanna” is translated as “O Lord, grant us salvation!  Lord, grant success!”   St. John Paul II, in a reflection on this great liturgical psalm, translates it as “Please, save us!”  “Hosanna!” is a heartfelt prayer to God to rescue us from those who oppress us and threaten us.  In another context, it’s a cry of praise for the time when God rescued us from danger.

Scripture scholars tell us that Psalm 118 was part of a group of psalms (113-118) that were used as hymns of praise for Passover, one of the major Jewish religious feasts.  Psalm 118 was sung during a ritual victory procession: the king, accompanied by his followers, enters Jerusalem and proceeds to the mount of the Temple (the House of God).  As they process through the streets of the city, the psalmist sings of a great victory, during which the king was beset by foes who beleaguered him, but God rescued him and made him victorious over his enemies.  When the procession reaches the gates of the Temple, the priests admit the king and his followers.  Once inside the Temple, a joyful victory celebration ensues, with a song of praise to God who rescued them.

Palm Sunday is unique among the liturgies of the year in that there are two different Gospel readings: at the beginning of the celebration, the deacon or priest reads a Gospel passage at the back of our church, after the palms have been blessed.  Then, after a procession through the church that may recall the joyful victory procession of Psalm 118, during which we sing “Hosanna!”, we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, which includes a second Gospel reading, the Passion of Jesus according to the synoptic Gospel author of the church year (this year is Luke).

Each year on Palm Sunday, the first Gospel tells the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.  In all four Gospel accounts of this episode, the echoes of Psalm 118 are unmistakable.   This is a story of people who are deeply immersed in the scripture and the public prayer life of their community. In Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s accounts of Jesus’s entry, the people cry “Hosanna”, just as they do in Psalm 118.  In addition, in all four Gospel accounts, the people cry a variation of, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  This also is a direct quote from Psalm 118 (v.26).  It seems clear that the followers of Jesus were re-creating the Passover feast victory procession: his glorious entry into the royal city would be the start of a triumphant procession to claim the throne.

Today’s second Gospel reading, the Passion account, tells the outcome of that procession: to all appearances, all the peoples’ hopes and plans have been dashed.  The priests, rather than welcoming Jesus as king, arrest him as a criminal and put him on trial in the Temple precinct.  And Pilate, the man who represents the Roman Emperor in Jerusalem, doesn’t relinquish the throne to Jesus; instead, he sentences him to death.  Rather than taking possession of a throne, Jesus is nailed to a cross.

To much of the world, it probably appears that Jesus failed in his mission.  But we who have been rescued by God know the truth: that what seemed to be defeat and death was victory and new birth into a kingdom of wisdom, power, peace and justice.  St. Paul famously described the cross as a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, and yet it is precisely Christ crucified which Paul proclaimed (1 Cor 1:23).   Paul sums it up in the magnificent hymn that is today’s second reading: because Jesus obediently accepted death on a cross, “Every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Chris is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Christ’s moment of failure and death is, paradoxically, his moment of triumph.  The king’s victory procession reaches its goal – for those of us who have been initiated into the truth of Christ’s reign.

Today, we still sing those words from Psalm 118, the same words that Jesus’s followers sang when he entered Jerusalem, when we sing the Sanctus (“Holy holy”) at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist at mass: “Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.  We continue to celebrate the victory of Jesus, the victory of the cross, during which God comes to save us by offering himself for us.  Jesus’s self-sacrifice saves us.  Hosanna!


Deacon Jim Pauwels