Holy Week: for Christians the ultimate drama in all of space and time, that ever has been or ever will be. And it begins with a man in his early thirties riding a donkey into Jerusalem, among crowds of people waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna”.
Because we look back on it from a perspective of 2,000 years, we know what comes next: the Last Supper, trial, torture and the execution on Friday of the hero of the hour only a few days before. The shattering loss of hope beyond what can be borne….and the resurrection beyond hope which changed the world for ever.
Of course, the people lining the streets of Jerusalem didn’t know any of this. Because it happened during the Passover festival, many would have come to the city from the whole Mediterranean, some even perhaps from the thriving Jewish communities of the Persian empire. They’d know little of local politics; maybe after the festival they went home and never found out what came of the bloke on the donkey; or they heard dark rumours of something awful. Such a pity, but it was probably best to keep your head down and not come to the attention of the authorities by asking questions.
But most would have been locals, fully aware of the seething political cauldron that was Jerusalem. Many were just caught up in the moment, but many had already invested some meaning of their own in what was going on. A crowd ready for a message, waving palms and shouting Hosanna.
Except that they didn’t. They would have shouted Hoshi’a-nah. My Concise Oxford English dictionary defines “hosanna” as “a shout of adoration”. But it’s a whole lot more than that.
This calls for a brief excursion into the joys of Hebrew grammar. Trust me.
In textbook terms, Hoshi’a-nah is a “hiphil imperative of the root yod-shin-ain with the precative participle -nah”. I hope you’ve got that. There’ll be a test afterwards……
I grant you it sounds dry, put like that….but let’s unpick it. The root of the word, the underlying idea, is associated in the Hebrew Bible (which of course was Jesus’ Bible) with deliverance, salvation, safety, welfare: the things that Israel looked to God to provide in his everlasting covenant with his people. There’s also, to me, an interesting sense of the covenant as based in relationship. The -na is often translated as “please” or “I pray you”, which is suitably polite when talking to God…but it can also be seen as emphasising the request, almost turning it into an order. So “save us, please” but also “save us NOW!” I suspect there may well have been a bit of both going on.
This may give us an insight into why things did change so swiftly after Palm Sunday. Already there’s an impatience for the Messiah to come, and a sense of what the crowd expects from him, and what they don’t get. The same root shouted on Palm Sunday is used elsewhere to describe “a people victorious”.
And this sort of meaning scares the authorities. A year ago, we started worrying about crowds. Scenes from last year’s Cheltenham festival seem astonishing to us now. And even though I think the vast majority of people are looking forward to the easing of lockdown, we’re still going to be nervous of people gathering together for some time to come.
The Jerusalem authorities were also alarmed by people congregating. But the contagion they feared was both political and religious. Passover was the time of greatest tension because it remembered how God had freed his people from slavery in Egypt long before. This was – and remains – the central reference point of the Jewish faith, the one which God used to describe himself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” Since then, the Lord’s people had endured war, oppression, loss and exile, as well as intervals of the promised prosperity. But he had been faithful. And what he had done before, one day (Lord, save us please, and save us now) he would do again.
Obviously this meant no more Roman rule. And probably also an end to the authority of local leaders and politicians as well, seen by many as collaborators and Quislings.
The Jewish authorities don’t come well out of the Passion story, although their concerns were not pure self-interest. They’d seen plenty of political unrest, and it just made things worse. They were doing their best, and that meant keeping everything under control.
But here comes Jesus, stamping his entry into Jerusalem with the trappings of Jewish royalty: the donkey (Solomon rode one of these on his royal entry), the palms (symbol of the last independent Jewish dynasty of the Hasmonaeans), the royal title (“son of David”). The cries of Hoshi-ana, hosanna. No wonder the alarms were going off.
The crowd is a main character in the drama of Holy Week. They have a wisdom, to some degree. They have it so right, when they cry Hosanna in a frenzy of joy and praise……and yet they have it so wrong, in what they expect Jesus to do. They cry for a warrior king, to restore the independent kingdom of Israel. How many of them, bitterly disappointed, went on to call “Crucify!” on Friday?
On the other hand, the High Priest Caiaphas got it so wrong in his involvement in Jesus’ death….but got it so right when he said, “It is better that one man should die for the people.” Of course, he was talking about local politics, not the salvation of the world.
But the salvation of the world is what we get. Not in the way that anyone expected. A final Hebrew reference: the root of Hosanna is the basis of Jesus’ own name, Yeshua or Jehoshua: God saves (have you ever wondered why the angel Gabriel gave Mary a name for her baby?). The diocese of Oxford has been running a series of readings and talks over Lent that’s simply called “come and see”. That is the great call of Holy Week. Come and see. Come and see for the first time, come and see again.
Hoshi’a-nah. Hosanna. A shout of adoration for a chap on a donkey, the saviour of the world.