Reflections on Palm Sunday

February 7th 1964. Pan Am flight 101, from London to New York, touches down on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy Airport. Amongst the passengers on the flight are four lads from Liverpool, heading to the big apple to launch their music career in America, and in the terminal are thousands of screaming fans. The Beatles had arrived.

When I think of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday I imagine similar scenes of hysteria. People are going wild. Here is Jesus, understated and humble, riding on the back of a donkey, and then surrounding Him are screaming crowds. They’re taking their cloaks off and throwing them on the road; some tear palm branches off trees and throw them down, others wave them above their heads and they cry out together, “Hosanna to the Son of David”.

And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
– Matthew 21:9

That word Hosanna is hugely interesting. Its etymology and original meaning may not be what you expect. It comes originally from the Hebrew language and was actually two words: hō·wō·šî·‘āh nā. It was a cry, yes, but not of adoration or acclimation; it was a cry for help, literally meaning “Save, now!” (Psalm 118:25) It conveys a desperate and immediate cry for help.

But the people by the side of the road on the Mount of Olives are not crying out of desperation, they are not pleading for rescue, they’re giving praise and honour and thanks. This isn’t a crowd of suffering and subdued people praying for a saviour, it’s a crowd proclaiming one.

There was a tradition at this time in history where a victorious Roman general would be granted a triumph. He would ride into the city amidst the adulation of the people who declared the great deeds that he had done. It was a great honour supposed to be reserved for only the greatest of men.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem they cry out and welcome Him in the same way that the Romans might have welcomed Pompey to Rome. He is met by a flood of honour and praise. The difference is that Jesus arrives not in a mass of pomp and ceremony but in humility, not on a war horse but on a donkey.

In the context of the people’s cries Hosanna no longer means, “Save, now!”, but rather, “Hurrah! Praise God! Our saviour has come!” The word is still about salvation but has progressed from a prayer or plea to a shout of praise. The people believe that their deliverance and salvation is at hand – and it is, though not as they expected.

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
– Psalm 30:11-12

When we use that word, Hosanna, we declare that we have a saviour, that in our hour of need someone came in the name of the Lord and rescued us. We proclaim the fact that not only is there a saviour, but that He is our saviour.

That word, overtime, has developed along with our story. What was once about desperation has become about redemption; our response should be to adore and proclaim our king.

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Photo from Jim Nix, used under Creative Commons Licence.

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