Monday, March 17, 2008
The Meaning of HOSANNA
We sing it Sunday after Sunday in the latter half of the Sanctus (L: "holy") prior to receiving the blessed Sacrament, but how many people honestly know what HOSANNA means? The same goes for Hallelujah ("Praise the LORD/ Yahweh"), or my favorite, Sabaoth (as in the older Sanctus, which means "host" or "company" in reference to the "angels and archangels" of the Proper Preface, and is often mistaken for the more familiar "Sabbath).
For my sermon this past Sunday I did some research on this word and was surprised by the variance in interpretation. The word comes from Psalm 118:25, which was chanted by the Palm Sunday pilgrims praising Jesus as he came into Jerusalem, and it means "save, now" in its basic sense. However, there is obviously more than one way to take this word.
One school of thought, which I found in many references, is that the people were in effect saying "God save the king!" True, the praises of this day are clearly messianic, and the titles ascribed to Jesus identify him as the Davidic King of Israel. This interpretation of hosanna goes counter, though, to the basic meaning in the original psalm, which clearly is a prayer for deliverance. Some English versions of the psalm include the word "us" (as in "save us, now, we pray"), although technically the Hebrew does not. Thus, it is possible in the one version where they chant "Hosanna to the Son of David," that it could be seen as a call of "God save or grant victory to the King!"
The fact that the Gospel writers transliterate, but do not translate the word hosanna, is indicative that there was a change in this word from the simple prayer of Psalm 118 to a more general declaration of praise. Psalms 113 to 118, often referred to as the "Hallel Psalms" because of their character as psalms of praise, were used liturgically at the great festivals, especially the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles, and the Festival of Passover, which is what frames the context of our Palm Sunday pericope. Thus, like our Hallelujah, the nature of Hosanna seems to have changed in its basically understood meaning from one time to the next, ending up as a more general ascription of praise.
However, I am not convinced that the change went from "save us" to "save the king." The context of the original psalm resists this, in my opinion, even when factoring in a shift in use. I found a sermon on this word by a Pastor John Piper that seems to effectively argue for a different kind of 'shift' in meaning. He contends that the word underwent a change from "plea to praise, from cry to confidence" in the sense that the "new hosanna," as he calls it, became a cry of praise similar to "Salvation has come!" Thus, one use (the "older hosanna") is a cry for God to save and deliver his people now, and the other a cry of thanksgiving and relief that this deliverance has arrived.
As I noted in my sermon yesterday, I believe both uses are appropriate in the Sanctus given its place in the Divine Service. Since we are drawn to the Supper where we encounter the living Christ in the bread and wine, and here receive the true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, it is proper that we would pray in our approach that God would indeed "save us now." This is a means of God's grace, a sacrament through which, as Luther pointed out, we receive life and salvation. Still, we also approach the Table realizing that this salvation has come as an historically completed event. Thus, both hosannas, old and new, if you will, work well in the liturgical context of the Service of the Sacrament.
I am grateful, by the way, that our newest hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, offers a small footnote of the meaning of hosanna right under the Sanctus. While meanings change, it is still helpful for our people to understand and appreciate these ancient words of worship.