Presented at Vespers, Goshen College, 4-8-90
This meditation appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN, self-published 2020
I am always amazed to learn about original meanings of words, symbols or events within Israel or the early church. Such learning happened this week when I studied the cry “Hosanna” and the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. May these findings enrich your understanding.
“Hosanna” originates from the Aramaic term Hosh-na which means “Save, please.” It was used as a prayer for help. Notably at the Feast of Tabernacles, it expressed a prayer for rain. “Hosanna” later became an expression of praise, as this feast shifted from an occasion of petition to one of thanks. In the entire New Testament, “Hosanna” occurs only in the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the event that Christians have come to call “Palm Sunday.”
For background to the term and event, we look at Psalm 118:25-28. (Jerusalem Bible, adapted)
25 – “Please, Yahweh, please save us. Please, Yahweh, please give us prosperity.
26 – Blessings on those who come in the name of Yahweh! We bless you from the house of Yahweh.
(That blessing was meant for the pilgrims as they approached the Temple. It is then followed by)
27 – Yahweh is God, who smiles on us. With branches in your hands, draw up in procession as far as the horns of the altar. (A note of literary interest: in the Hebrew each word of this verse begins with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet. A word of thanks then comes in verse 28.)
28 – You are my God. I give you thanks; I extol you, my God. I give you thanks for having heard me; you have been my savior.”
What then was the Feast of Tabernacles? What was the setting for the cry for help, Hosh-na? An autumn festival after a long period of drought, it came at the time of the Jewish New Year. Pilgrims gathered for seven days. Pilgrims hurriedly built booths or tents, imitating their nomadic forebears after they escaped from Egypt.
On the first day pilgrims gathered foliage and branches from local trees. Or a large amount of palm would have been brought from the Jordan valley, to be used to build their temporary huts and to carry in daily processions. The procession route had a set pattern. Pilgrims carried symbols—in one hand a bunch of myrtle and willow twigs tied with palm and in the other a lemon or the larger citron fruit. They sang psalms en route and ended at the Temple altar which they covered with garlands of branches.
The first night included a torch dance in which God was credited with bringing light. On the seventh day the altar was circled seven times. Most of the prayers expressed with the festival began with “Hosanna.” So, at the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his Jewish followers would have connected the shout with this earlier tradition.
Leafy palms also evoked nationalistic memories and hopes. So, when people greeted Jesus on entering Jerusalem, their act was political. They thanked Jesus for delivering them. But they failed to understand Jesus’ meaning. He was confronting the existing power, the local authority. His view of power was not for national security. Jesus entered to test the prevailing power. For Jesus, power meant new strength for the poor, the lame, the weak, the defenseless. Jesus wished the crowd not to acclaim him as an earthly king, but to see him as a sign that God had come among them to gather all people, especially the outcasts.
The challenge is still ours, to cry: “Save us! Help us to catch on to God’s power that radically includes. Hosh-na!”