Andrew Roberts, founder of the missional discipleship ministry, Holy Habits, explores the true meaning of the Palm Sunday exclamation, Hosanna!
A powerful, prayerful and political cry
On Palm Sunday it is customary to join in the singing of the great festal shout, ‘Hosanna!’ The shout that greeted Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. We often assume it was a joyous shout, maybe influenced in our thinking by songs such as Carl Tuttle’s ‘Hosanna’. And it may well have been, with the crowds gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover festival there would have been a carnival atmosphere.
At the same time, ‘Hosanna’ was, and is, a powerful, prayerful and political cry. It literally means ‘Save, now.’ It is an impassioned, urgent, demanding cry. Expectations were high on that first Palm Sunday that Jesus was coming to the city to liberate the people from occupation and repression.
In Mariupol, Kyiv, Kharkiv and across Ukraine, there will be millions this Palm Sunday crying, praying, singing and shouting ‘Hosanna! Save us now!’ And in prayer and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we may choose to join with them.
Please pray for us
In a moving interview with Gary Lineker, the Ukrainian footballer Oleksandr Zinchenko, when asked what he would like people to do to support the people of Ukraine, said first that he would like people to pray for them. In March my local church gathered one Sunday evening to do just that. The pews were full of people from the church, from other churches and significantly from no church.
What followed was extraordinary. In over 30 years of ministry, I have not experienced anything like it. Two weeks later the lady who had organised all the music wrote, ‘I’ve never played for a service like that in all my life. I just can’t explain the feelings and emotions it generated.’ It was a deeply moving night with a tangible sense of both the Holy Spirit at work and of solidarity with both the people of Ukraine and the peaceable people of Russia who don’t want this war either.
We sat silently. We sang our prayers, including songs of praise recognising that in the face of evil, the goodness of God needs to be declared. There was a kind of holy defiance in this – evil will not win. Again, it was a bit like the cries of Hosanna on the first Palm Sunday.
We heard the ‘Blessed are’ words of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-11): ‘blessed are those who mourn… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… blessed are the peacemakers.’ We dwelt with iconographic paintings by Ukrainian artists.
A disaster for the whole created order
One picture by Ostap Lozynskyy was particularly powerful. It showed the Holy Family fleeing as refugees into Egypt – the connection all too obvious. Fleeing with the Holy Family is, what the artist appears to be suggesting, the family pet, a small dog. This was unusual for this story but so readily identifiable with those fleeing Ukraine with their family pets tucked inside their jackets. A poignant reminder that the desecration being wrought on Ukraine is not just a human tragedy but a disaster for the whole created order. And a reminder that Jesus’ suffering and death was not just for humanity but for the whole cosmos, for the healing of creation.
We watched a short prayerful video from a Methodist Church in Ukraine. The ordinariness of that was the source of its power. We sang the song ‘Look around you, can you see? (Kyrie Eleison)’, one of the prayers of our times, of all times.
And then we watched a video with images from the conflict which ended with the picture of Polina, the young girl with the pink hair who was shot with her family as she sought to flee. As her picture came on screen so too did the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:8). Many were weeping, just as Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem in Holy Week as he foresaw the desolation that was to come to the city (Matthew 23:37–39).
An extended time of prayer followed with people praying in different ways. Some lit candles, some sat quietly, some dwelt with the beatitudes, some wrote their prayers and placed them on a prayer tree. And many came to the front of the church, knelt and wept, their tears a vicarious sharing in the suffering of those they were praying for. ‘Please pray for us’ said Oleksandr Zinchenko. It was overwhelming to see the depth and power of the prayers that evening.
A cry of defiance in the face of evil
I had hoped when writing this that a way to peace in Ukraine might have been found before Palm Sunday. I fear it won’t be. So, let the cry of Hosanna this year be one of defiant praise in the face of evil. Hopeful praise in the face of despair. Vicarious praise with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, and our peaceable brothers and sisters in Russia. And yes, confident praise knowing that the Abba, Father in whom Jesus put his trust in the darkness of Gethsemane, the agony of Calvary and the silence of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb is the one who brings new life out of the deepest and darkest tragedies.
Hosanna! May it be so.
Prayer for Ukraine
Creator God, who made us in your image,
thank you for the gift of empathy and compassion
which we inherit from you,
and which is being revealed
in this time of pain and suffering.
May the many acts of love, welcome, mercy and kindness,
which flourish, despite the sounds of warfare,
be multiplied by the power of your Spirit,
to bring hope, healing and peace
for the beleaguered people of Ukraine.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.