I didn’t get this posted yesterday, like I had hoped, but I’m still shooting to reflect on every day in Holy Week. You can listen to my sermon from yesterday, locked chapel dibocle and all, here. Or read on!
I am not a Cradle Episcopalian, but I am a Toddler one, and not only did I grow up in the Church, but I grew up the child of an Altar Guild Chair. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are my sister and I polishing the altar rail before Easter services. Of course, we polished it by sitting on it and sliding back and forth, but we were helping, I assure you. I’ve been through First Communion Classes, Confirmation Classes, and I graduated from the largest and arguably the most prestigious Episcopal Seminary in the world. I have no excuse not to know all the fancy Church words that get thrown around in churchy circles other than I’m a brat and I just refuse use words like flagon, ciborium, ambo, narthex, and purificator. Nothing bothers me more than when the Church, after 500 years of intentionally working to bring the word and worship of God into the language of the people, keeps one or two ancient Greek, Hebrew or Olde English words that, though they are used with great regularity, the vast majority of us have no real clue as to what they actually mean.
Take, for instance, the word “Amen.” We’ve already said it four times during this service. We say it every time we pray, but do you actually know what you are saying? Or are you just wrapping up a thought, and using it as a fancy period? The word “Amen” comes from early Semitic languages and means “so be it,” which is why we say it communally. When Keith asked the Lord God of our salvation, to assist us in contemplating the mighty acts of the week to come, we affirmed his prayer by saying, “Amen.”
Or how about the taboo for another week word, “Alleluia.” Next week we’ll throw it around like confetti, but do we know what it means other than the meanings each of us have given it through ongoing usage? An ancient Hebrew word of thanksgiving, joy and triumph, Alleluia literally means “Praise God!” Hence the interchangeability of Alleluia and Praise God during a good Southern Baptist sermon.
Of particular concern for me today is the word Hosanna. Every year, somebody comes up to me after Palm Sunday and asks one of two questions. Either they want to know, “What does Hosanna mean?” Or “Why can we say Hosanna in Lent but not Alleluia?” Both are good questions, and both speak to the heart of my problem with Church Words. When they get used even though only a select few know what they mean, they become totally devoid of value. And it isn’t your fault. We’ve just always used these words, so we continue to use them, and even though we had to have someone teach us what they mean (or we looked them up on Wikipedia), we expect that everyone else is in the same circle of knowledge we are.
Every Sunday, we join with Christians the world around as well as “angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven” in proclaiming God’s glory in the unending hymn of praise, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are filled with your glory; Hosanna in the highest. Blessed in He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” On Palm Sunday, we join with the crowd gathered at the East Gate of Jerusalem as we say and sing “Hosanna” over and over and over again.
Because of its use on Palm Sunday in hymns like “All glory, laud and honor to thee, Redeemer King! To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring” the word “hosanna” has become, in many ways, a kissing cousin of Alleluia. It often gets used as a exclamation of praise and adoration. Hence, I suppose, the question of why we use it in Lent when we don’t say Alleluia. When we use Hosanna as a word of praise, however, we lose a lot of what is happening in the Palm Sunday narrative we heard read from Mark’s Gospel a few minutes ago. In Hebrew, the word is pronounced “Hoshana,” and means, very simply, “save us!”
The whole story of that first Palm Sunday, as Mark tells it, puts us in the mind of the crowd gathered at the East Gate of Jerusalem as they cry out “Hosanna!” It begins with Jesus, as he approaches Jerusalem for the Passover, instructing two of his disciples to go on ahead and procure an unridden, untamed, young donkey for the final leg of the journey. The disciples, the crowd, and Mark’s original audience would all be clued in, at this point, to the ninth chapter of Zechariah, when the prophet declares an Oracle of God’s coming victory. After describing a great military victory over the enemies of God’s chosen people, Zechariah writes of the lasting peace of God, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, you king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus approaches the East Gate, the gate that Jewish traditions holds as the entry point of the Messiah, riding on the young offspring of a donkey, a symbol of peace, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy of the king’s grand return as the people lay palm branches, the ancient Jewish symbol of triumph and victory along his path. Everything is setting up for triumph and praise and adoration, but the people declare, “Hosanna!” “Save us!” rathertl than “alleluia!” “Praise God!”
The people of Jerusalem, preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Passover, the annual remembrance of God’s saving act for his chosen people, are keenly aware of their need for salvation, and so they join the cry of Lazarus, Bartimaeus, the hemorrhagic woman, the widow of Nain, the woman at the well, and the countless others who have already experienced God’s saving love in the person of Jesus Christ. The arrival of the hoped for Messiah seems to be at hand, and so they cry out, in one voice, a word co-mingled with desperation and hope, “Hosanna!” “Save us!” Save us from the hand of our oppressors. Save us from the broken systems of law and religion that keep us impoverished in body, mind, spirit, and soul. Save us from the ongoing wrath of the God we have forsaken. Hosanna! Save us!
When it comes down to it, we use these words because they tie us to our history. We wave palm branches and shout out Hosanna because we too are in need of saving. We too are bound by the oppression of sin. We too are mixed up in systems of commerce, government, and religion that are both of great value and of significant harm. We too are waiting for God’s final victory, when the world knows only peace and the shouts of children aren’t “hosanna” but “alleluia!”
We neglect to teach these words to the detriment of us all. When the ancient words of our faith lose their meaning, we all suffer. When they are restored to their original value, when we see ourselves as no different than the crowd of faithful Jews in search of salvation, when we cry out not just a nonsensical hosanna, but an authentic plea of “save us,” perhaps we get a glimpse of the coming kingdom of our ancestor David, and foretaste of the heavenly banquet. As we begin our Holy Week journey, I invite you to contemplate you own need for a savior and with sincerity call out, “Hosanna in the highest!” Amen!