Why is there no hosanna in Luke?
And, while we are at it, why are there no palm branches?
These seem rather odd omissions in a text assigned to Palm Sunday, the most hosanna-ed day of the the Christian liturgical calendar.
The absence of a distinctively Hebrew word in Luke may not be so surprising. The other synoptics use Hebrew and Aramaic at key moments in their stories. Luke does not. Thus, Matthew’s Jesus and Mark’s screams out his abandonment as he dies, using a language that the Roman murderers are bound to misunderstand. Perhaps it is only because Luke envisions the death very differently, with a Jesus fully in control of his faculties, but there is no Hebrew or Aramaic spoken from the cross in Luke.
Why does Luke skip the Hebrew?
- An earlier generation of interpreters imagined that such omissions demonstrated that Luke was writing a Gentile-friendly gospel for a Gentile audience. I imagine no such thing. Luke’s story only makes sense to an audience that knows Jewish faith from the inside, whether or not they speak much Aramaic.
- A more promising approach begins by noting that storytellers of all sorts insert foreign words for their effect as much as for their meaning. Other languages function as magic languages, and many of the the “magic words” we use in English stories may well have migrated in from other languages and other traditions (e.g. Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus, perhaps). Matthew, Mark, and John give the crowds a powerful magic word to speak: hosanna, which gives voice to an old demand. “Now, LORD, now is the time to save,” says this little word, calling God by the Name that ought to remind God to be merciful to God’s people.
The intensity of “Hosanna”
The word, hosanna, ends with an intensifier (-na).
Some translate as “please,” but that translation is, to my ear, far too mild, far too submissive, far too polite to catch the way “-na” is used in Biblical Hebrew.
- Say “hosanna” aloud. Listen to it.
- More important, feel it.
- The sound “-na” at the end of the word resonates from deep in your chest.
- The sound takes the combination of the Divine Name and the plea for rescue and carries them down into your lungs. When the apostle Paul talks about the Spirit interceding for us in sighs too deep for words, this is part of what he means.
- The sound prays with a vibrating intensity that will have rung deep and solid along the streets and alleyways, sounding from the bodies of frail grandmothers and young, strong women equally well. Young and old men will have felt it, too, and even men no longer accustomed to praying will have felt the profundity. Prayers they had abandoned in their childhood will have come back to them as the “-na” resonated, reminding them of what they hoped for deep in their being.
But Luke skips the Hosanna. Is he weakening the prayers of the crowd?
Older interpreters sometimes imagined that Luke was soft-pedaling the hopes of the community in the interests of a “delayed parousia,” a postponing of God taking effective action to help a Creation in pain.
I am no longer convinced
There is an intensity to Luke’s story that is missed if you read the story as urging satisfaction (or at least patience) with the status quo. When the daughters of Jerusalem weep for the Pilate’s execution of yet another brother (23:31), Jesus says that this is only a “greenwood” fire, smoky and relatively low-intensity, compared to what is very shortly coming when Rome will incinerate the city and slaughter the people as they crush the First Jewish Revolt.
More significant than Luke’s omission of hosannas is his choice of what the crowds WILL say
In concert with the other three gospels, the crowds bless the one who is coming, and all include that this is “in the Name of the LORD,” whatever this exactly means.
- Luke complicates this, perhaps, by inserting the phrase, “The king,” into the cries of the crowd.
- That little phrase could simply be a quick identification of the one who is coming (“It’s the king.”) in the Name of the LORD.
- But it could also mean that the blessed one who is coming will rule as the embodiment of the MERCY that is called mind for the rabbis whenever the Divine Name YHWH is used in the Bible. The Divine Name “Elohim” (God) names the “Justice Attribute,” say the rabbis, the aspect of God that guarantees order and predictability will govern the cosmos. The unpronounceable Divine Name, “YHWH” (the LORD), names the “Mercy Attribute,” the crucial activity of God always to be “slow to anger,” always to “abound in love.”
- If the coming one is to rule in MERCY, then the Creation is on the brink of healing.
Luke’s other choices are even more breath-taking
Luke anchors this healing of Creation by the other choices he makes for the crowd. The waiting, praying crowd sings of peace and glory in the highest realms of existence.
This song has been sung before
The words were a bit different (understandable, since the exact circumstances were also a bit different), but the force of the song was the same. This is the song that the angels sang when they announced great joy to all the congregation of Israel. They announced “Christos kurios.” This announcement, usually translated as “Christ the Lord,” deserves careful attention.
- “Christos” names the one anointed to turn the world right-side-up. This is most often a king, sometimes a priest, but always this Anointed One acts to make it possible to call the world “God’s own Creation” without bitterness or irony.
- “Kurios” translates the Name of the Mercy Attribute, and thus echoes the note sounded by Luke’s crowd when they bless the king who will reign in Mercy.
- Perhaps the angels sing, in the same way, of the Messiah who will heal in Mercy.
- This reading of the Greek also solves a syntactical problem in the angel’s song. “Christos kurios” parks two nouns next to each other without giving a clue what to do next. Is it an appositive (“Christ, a Lord” or “Christ, the Lord,” for the squeamish)? Is it a quotation of the Psalms of Solomon, where the same, rather surprising, phrase is used? Is it a somewhat awkward colloquial expression? Is it a consequence of the presence of poetry, which always gives syntax a real workout?
- What if it is simply a Hebrew construct phrase? Then the angel is singing straightforwardly about the “Messiah of the Mercy Attribute,” the “Messiah of MERCY,” God’s dedicated act of healing.
However you translate this, it matters that what the angels sang is now being sung by ordinary women and men in the streets and alleyways of occupied Jerusalem. Luke does not use the word “hosanna,” perhaps because he does not need it. What matters is that what started as a song sung in the highest realms by exalted angels has now become a song that anyone can sing. That’s the way it is with a good song. Good songs go viral.
But it gets even more intense
Pharisees come from the crowd (and that identification, that they, too, were “from the crowd,” implies that they were praying for the healing of the Creation right along with the common crowd). These faithful Pharisees caution Jesus that such language gets out of hand far too easily. Jesus answers (he does not rebuke, he answers) that if the little kids and old ladies in the crowd were silent, the rocks would sing in their place.
This is a decisive step. The ancient Jewish world was a structural unity. The design for the whole entity was set in the Heavens, where the angels were the key structural elements (angelic I-beams, if you will). This orderly, reliable, stable structure proceeded from the presence of God outward, down through the realms where humans can never reach, even from the highest mountains, down to the human realm, and from there on to the ground we walk on and excavate to lay the foundations of the buildings we can make.
Jesus says that the song that the angels sang is now the song of the entire Creation
It is being sung even by rocks. If Jesus had known anything about sub-atomic particles, he would have added that even quarks now echo the angels.
Now is the day of rescue. The whole Creation sings it.