The Liturgy of the Palms, Year B
[Texts: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, 17-22, John 12:12-16]
It’s a Cold and It’s a Broken Hosanna
What do you think the word “hosanna” means?
I think this has got to be one of the best-kept secrets in the Bible—either that or I really wasn’t paying attention in Sunday school—because I would have answered this question wrong for the first twenty-one of my twenty-three-and-a-half years on this planet.
And I’m not the only one. It seems like a lot of people are under the impression that “hosanna” can be used interchangeably with a certain word that we don’t use during Lent—and that hosanna, like that other word, must mean something like “praise be to God”.
Maybe part of the problem is that we’re used to saying “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to God’s people on Earth” every Sunday, and then we hear “Hosanna in the Highest” and figure it must be another way of saying “glory to God”.Or perhaps, in the spirit of Palm Sunday, “all glory, laud and honor to Thee, Redeemer King.”
You might be surprised to find out what “hosanna” actually means. The word in Greek is ὡσαννά (ho-SAN-nuh), and it comes from a Hebrew phrase, הושיעה־נא (hoe-see-AW-nuh), that means something like, “Save us now, please!”
That doesn’t sound like an expression of praise, does it? It’s a cry for help—a cry for deliverance. I think it sounds like something you’d say if you were really overwhelmed, or in deep distress.
Whoa, wait a minute—distress? Why are we talking about that in church?
How many of you—and you don’t have to raise your hands—have ever heard someone say, “You know, if you’d just have a little more faith, you wouldn’t be having such a hard time.”
How about, “If you loved God more, you’d be happy.”
These statements—and any other trite little platitudes that dismiss real suffering as a valid part of a faithful Christian’s experience—are not only unhelpful but also untrue.
(File all of them under “things that should never come out of a Christian’s mouth”.)
This kind of theology, taken to its logical extreme, starts to sound a lot like the notion of the “prosperity gospel”, where being rich, comfortable, and happy is equated with God loving you.
And Joel Osteen didn’t invent that theological hot mess, either, by the way. It’s not new, not by a long shot; in fact, it’s about as old as the Bible. Very early in their walk with God, the Hebrews developed an idea that scholars now call “deuteronomic theology”, and it’s basically the idea that if you do what you’re supposed to, good things will happen to you, which you should interpret as God rewarding you for your good behavior. And if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, bad things will happen to you, because God is smiting your disobedient little self upside the head.
Behavioral psychologists call this sort of paradigm a “carrot and stick” situation—if you obey, you get a carrot, and if you disobey, you get smacked. That’s pretty much what deuteronomic theology is.
Now, if you read a little further in the Hebrew Bible, you’ll see that the Hebrews soon outgrew this in favor of a more nuanced understanding, which continued to evolve throughout the writing of the scriptures.
Many Christians in the twenty-first century, unfortunately, are still stuck on carrots and sticks. So much of the rhetoric you hear today says that if you love and trust God enough, everything will be easy. If you’re suffering, you must be doing something wrong. If you’re overwhelmed or in distress, you must be doing something wrong.
And that’s just flat-out bad theology. Any theology that doesn’t leave room for sorrow and faithfulness to coexist is, if you’ll excuse my language, a load of crap.
And it’s a manmade load of crap, born out of our human tendency to be uncomfortable in the presence of each other’s suffering and distress. We want to wrap it up in an easy explanation so that we can justify it, and then we don’t have to wrestle with it– or, God forbid, sit there with it. We think that if we don’t make room for suffering, we can avoid dealing with it.
But scripture makes room for suffering, for doubt, for uncertainty, and for distress– all those ugly, messy things we don’t want anything to do with– and it does so over and over again. Read the Psalms. Read Job. Read Ecclesiastes.
Heck, read the Gospels. Jesus talks about the rain falling and the sun shining on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, refuses to blame anyone’s sin for a person being born disabled, and calls the persecuted “μακαραοι” (ma-CAR-ee-oi) — “blessed”.
And then, of course, there’s the ultimate act of faithfulness and the ultimate act of suffering: Christ’s Passion.
On Friday, in just a couple of days, we’re going to talk about how Jesus– our example of perfect faithfulness– not only suffered, but suffered an immense amount. He suffered betrayal by one of his best friends. He suffered public humiliation and mocking. He suffered fear and mental anguish so severe that he literally sweated blood. He suffered the immense pain of death on a cross– hanging there for hours in agony with broken legs, suspended by his arms, until his heart finally ruptured. In his darkest moments, he even felt like God had abandoned him.
Most of his disciples were executed too. So was St. John the Baptist. Church tradition tells us about countless saints who were tortured and martyred not in spite of but because of their incredible faith and faithfulness.
Our liturgical calendar– one of the most important traditions we have– also makes room for suffering as part of the Christian journey. Each season speaks to a different part of the human experience– anticipation and fulfillment, fasting and feasting, sorrow and joy, penitence and redemption, death and resurrection.
The Church doesn’t shy away from the more unpleasant and uncomfortable parts of what it means to be a human and a Christian.
Neither do the scriptures.
And neither should we.
A week from today, we’re going to be using a word that means “Praise be to God!”, and we’re going to say and sing it over and over, offering our praise to the risen Christ as we live joyfully into the reality of the resurrection.
But that’s next week. That’s Easter.
Today is Palm Sunday, and we’re singing and shouting “hosanna” instead.
And, remember? Hosanna means, “deliver us!”
Your “hosanna in the highest” today doesn’t have to be a shout of joy– in fact, it isn’t meant to be.
So let it be a cry of sorrow. Let it be a cry of anguish. Let it be a cry for help, for redemption, for justice, for rescue.
Let it be a cold and a broken Hosanna.
There’s room for that in the Body of Christ.