Beating the Earth – Hosannah!

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, March 25, 2018


For many branches of Christianity, today is a day that, perhaps more than any other, is about the idea of messiah.


The idea of a messiah has often divided people. Traditional Jews await a messiah. Traditional Christians believe the Jewish messiah has already come, is actually the universal messiah, and will come again to institute an age where good overthrows evil. Throughout Jewish history divisions came when a portion of the people followed someone with the hope it was the messiah and then didn’t carry through with things a messiah was expected to do. Jews traditionally understand the messiah to be a political ruler while many Christians traditionally understand the primary work of the messiah in the present to be spiritual, with political restoration of the earth as a future process, a future time of perfection on earth. And progressive Jews and Christians often take a less literal approach to the idea of messiah.


Of course, Jews and Christians are not the only ones who have stories about a future leader who will set things right and bring everything to the way they are really supposed to be. Some branches of Buddhism have Maitreya, the future Buddha or bodhisattva, who will restore a lost enlightenment. Islam and the Bahá’í Faith, the Rastafarians and others believe in a leader who will usher in an age free of the barriers and limitations of the past are overcome.


But on this day, it is largely Christians who are celebrating their story of messiah. Have any of you ever been in a Palm Sunday procession, carrying a palm frond as you walked with a big group into the service?


The fundamentalist church I grew up in did not do processions. I fact, it wasn’t until I was in my 40s and in seminary that I first experienced a Palm Sunday procession. I was staying with a friend in Berwyn, a near western suburb of Chicago, while attending a spring intensive class in Hyde Park, on the south side. I was a guest at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, a four-blocks’ walk away from my friend’s apartment and was invited to join their Palm Sunday procession. Everyone who was physically able to join the procession did. And by the time we were settled into the pews, we had more things to hang onto than the inexperienced visitor could manage: palm frond, Book of Common Prayer, hymnal, twelve-page order of service, with a couple of loose inserts. I watched the congregation around me, and they were managing all this stuff. But it was too many pieces for me to keep track of. Some of it fell to the floor. Yet my pew mates were gracious to me as we participated in the service marking what they understood to be an early recognition of Jesus as messiah.


That celebration was outside my experience and both theologically and liturgically outside my comfort zone. But the gospel story of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem was one I had grown up with. In all four of the canonical Christian gospels, the story appears. There are the inevitable discrepancies in the tellings, coming, as they did, some decades after the events they told yet before enough time had passed to regularize all the stories.


Jesus told his followers to bring a donkey for him to ride into Jerusalem. And as they near the city, people come out throwing branches of an unspecified tree on the ground, or waving palm fronds, or placing their coats on the ground for Jesus to ride over. And people call out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the son of David! Hosanna in the highest!” Or something along that line. The accounts vary.


The story is told in a manner intended to draw connections to older texts in the Hebrew scriptures but also to bring in a later development, something not in the Tanakh, the core scriptures of the Jewish people. The reference to the descendent of the ancient King David, the use of the word Hosanna, the palm fronds, the cut branches all place this episode within an event, a ritual that was already under way. The story makes it sound like the shouts of acclamation and the palms and branches and coats on the ground were all on Jesus’ account. The story I learned in Sunday School and heard the preacher talk about when I was a child said it explicitly: the people came out in this manner to greet the person they understood to be their messiah, the person who would save them from Roman domination. But a story teller draws connections with contexts, creates allusion and foreshadowing, in order to use the story to express something meaningful or moving to their audience.


The Gospels were written in Greek, but the world they depict is the Hebrew and Aramaic world of the Jewish people within Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the First Century CE. Hosanna is a Hebrew word that never appears in the Hebrew scriptures, just as the concept of messiah was not developed or named within those scriptures. But after the time covered in those ancient holy books, society had changed a lot. The Greeks under Alexander the Great and his successors and then the Romans had dominated the Jewish people, sometimes with great cruelty. And in their new reality, Jews developed new ways of thinking about possible futures. Necessary futures. Futures that bring hope into the present.


Through the millennia, Judaism has hung onto the idea of the coming of a messiah. Indeed, the medieval Sephardic philosopher Moses Maimonides codified belief in the coming messiah as one of the essentials of the religion of the Jewish people. “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarry, I will still wait each day in expectation of his coming.” This developing concept is represented in ritual never named but familiar to the audience of the Gospel storyteller. Over time it has been regularized as Hoshana Rabbah.


Every fall, Judaism has a string of holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are best known and are followed by Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, at the end of which the Hoshana Rabbah ritual takes place. My synagogue in St. Louis travels nearly an hour together for this ritual. They take their Torah scrolls out to the state park at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. They process around the scrolls seven times, carrying their lulav, a bundle of a palm frond, small willow and myrtle branches, and an etrog, a citron fruit. Traditional prayers accompany the procession. The people wave the lulav in six directions. They recite a prayer asking for the coming of the messiah. And then they strike the earth five times with their willow branches.


The ritual is a composite from multiple resources lost in time. The procession around the Torah scrolls is believed to go back at least to the processions around the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in 70 CE. The carrying of the lulav and etrog, the shaking of them in the six directions, the beating of the earth with branches is older than is known. Some rabbis believe these are truly ancient, tribal customs that survived, with new meaning assigned in every generation. We have many lovely interpretations of the meaning of these customs, but no one knows why they were done originally or why they continued through the many changes in Jewish practice until they were finally codified. What we do know is that, by the time Jesus was riding the donkey into Jerusalem, these ancient rituals were linked to prayers for the coming of the messiah. Despite Christian usage of the word “hosanna” as a word of praise, it is the coming of the messiah that gives it meaning. The Hebrew word means, “Save us now!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” is, similarly, a messianic turn of phrase specific to this ritual at the end of Sukkot in the fall.


You may be wondering why Palm Sunday, the Christian observance that falls on the Sunday before Easter – in the spring – is in celebration of an event that happened in the fall. And that is simply a matter of making all the pieces fit into a liturgical pattern.


So here we are, on Palm Sunday, recognizing an ancient Jewish idea and its derivative idea that is central in traditional Christian teaching. But it is an idea that may seem more than a little strange to 21st-Century Unitarian Universalists. Some of us don’t feel comfortable with the idea of someone being sent by God to set things right. Some may simply hold that that is not how the universe has been observed to work. A few of us may sometimes say, “Hallelujah!” in irony-free expression of awe or perhaps gratitude. But “Hosanna? Please save us?” That seems to come from a different world-view than seems fitting among people who trust in the scientific method, the application of logic, and the rigorous examination of evidence.


And yet the telling of stories and making meaning through them calls on us to think symbolically and metaphorically, just as the practice of ritual and tradition call on us to place ourselves through our imagination in a situation that may have no literal example in all of reality and, yet, which can sometimes lead us into meaning and value. That First-Century crowd shouting “Hosanna!” was seeking hope for change in a world that was stacked against them. Beating the earth with their willow branches and praying for the coming of the messiah put their minds in a place where a different future could be imagined than the one that Rome was forcing on them. “Save us now!” was a cry that enabled them to build an entirely new society after the Temple was gone, the royal house erased, after many were scattered through the oppressor’s empire. It may be an ancient idea from a time and place we would find challenging to understand. But it is an idea that keeps telling itself in fiction and politics. We may come short, but the messiah idea still calls.


In 2005, Rabbi Robert N. Levine wrote the book There Is No Messiah, and You’re It. In it he presents the idea that messianic behavior is what will bring us toward the Messianic Age, that future eventuality where what has gone wrong will be repaired and be made better. And while the book has the subtitle The Stunning Transformation of Judaism’s Most Provocative Idea, it was not particularly stunning or provocative for those who had been watching ideas emerge.


Milton Steinberg, Rabbi of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue until his death in 1950, using the masculine generalization of his time, wrote:


Modernists hold [that] the Messiah is not one man. Rather are all good men messiahs, since by laboring together they cause the Kingdom to come. Nor will it arise all at once. It will be achieved slowly, cumulatively, “precept by precept, line by line, here a little, there a little.” …When then the Kingdom has come at last, when the final evil has been broken and the remotest good achieved, the glory of that moment will belong to all the men past and present who have dreamed of it and striven toward it. But the deeper glory will belong to Him who through the ages has spurred mankind, often against its will, to the greater good and beyond that to the greatest.[1]


Indeed, Rabbi Asher Meir reminds us that:


Rav Kook [(1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine,] …point[ed] out that we don’t smite the willow branch, but rather with the willow branch. …In the different struggles the Jewish people face, particularly the ideological struggles, our true secret weapon is not the scholars with their brilliant reasoning, but precisely the simple Jews who are devoted to the mitzvot, [the religious and moral obligations,] through habit and instinct. [2]


I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah. There is no messiah, and we’re it! We are the people we’ve been waiting for.[3] We’re it! Ours is the obligation to act. Messianic behavior is needed, as is amply clear every day so far in the 21st Century. So, let us raise our cry of Hosanna! Save us now! And let us answer that call, to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.[4]


[1] SUPPLEMENT FOR FESTIVALS — HOSHANA RABBAH, p. 207, Copyright © 2003 by The Rabbinical Assembly, Inc.

[2] “Beating the Aravot on Hoshana Rabba” by Rabbi Asher Meir, © Orthodox Union.

[3] June Jordan’s “Poem for South African Women,”

[4] The second Source of Unitarian Universalism. Section 2.1 of the UUA Bylaws.


© 2018 by the Rev. Paul Oakley