Sunday, April 13, was Palm/Passion Sunday, the start to Holy Week in the Christian tradition. On Palm/Passion Sunday, Christian communities remember Jesus’ “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” just days before he is arrested and sentenced to death. As Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, crowds swarmed around him shouting “Hosanna” and singing part of Psalm 118—“Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” Palm/Passion Sunday celebrations commonly include processions of choirs and churchgoers waving palms and shouting “Hosanna.”
This year, the church choir in which I sing has been learning the song, “Hosanna,” from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar:
Hosanna! Hey, ‘Sanna! ‘Sanna, ‘Sanna Ho!
‘Sanna Hey, ‘Sanna Ho, Sanna!
Hey J. C., you’re alright by me.
‘Sanna, Ho Sann! Hey Superstar!
Singing this rendition of “Hosanna” has stirred anew some theological questions that always surface for me during Holy Week: What do our contemporary embodiments of the ancient parade into Jerusalem mean? What message are we proclaiming or remembering? What painful and hopeful realities do we connect our lives to when we wave palms and remember that crowd from all those centuries ago?
To be honest, I was a reluctant singer of what seems to me a rather satirical version of “Hosanna.” My reluctance prompted some research into the meaning behind the lyrics. The result? Jesus Christ Superstar has helped me shape tentative new responses to those persistent Holy Week questions.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborated in the 1970’s to create the controversial and still popular musical. Tim Rice, the musical’s lyricist, focused on the characters of Judas and Mary Magdalene to tell the story of the last week of Jesus’ life. Rice and Webber wanted audiences to experience in a new and deeper way the humanity not only of Jesus but also of Judas. Jesus is portrayed in the musical as an increasingly popular political figure and Judas as a fiery and opinionated follower who takes issue with Jesus’ approach to activism. In the musical, Judas worries that Jesus’ superstar status is overshadowing his revolutionary message. Jesus remains committed to non-violent proclamations and embodiments of God’s justice and love. The song “Hosanna” in the musical spotlights the crowds that are attracted to Jesus and is a reminder that many of the people in the crowd were caught between Judas’ and Jesus’ differing approaches to political and social change.
Many of us sang “Hosanna” (“save us”) and waved palm branches as we worshiped on Palm/Passion Sunday. Perhaps our liturgical efforts serve as a reminder: like the ancient crowd and the crowd in Jesus Christ Superstar, we wrestle today with what it means to follow a Jesus who carries political activism into the public square on the back of a humble donkey. Of course, our role in the story is never really that of the parading, palm-waving crowd. Once we make a commitment to ministry, we cannot slip again into the anonymity that shrouds the people in the crowd. We have been called by name and live out that call in Jesus’ name. We embrace and resist and wrestle by name with the meanings of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ and Judas’ voices both call to us through Jesus Christ Superstar and through biblical accounts of Jesus’ last days. Indeed, our joyful cries of “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday are always tempered by deep human fears, uncertainties, and longings about God, our lives and the future. So it is that with an ambiguous Palm Sunday shout, we take our first reluctant steps into Holy Week.
Note: I am grateful to Dean O’Day for stretching my thoughts about this text through an impromptu doorway conversation last week. Illuminating hallway and doorway conversations with colleagues and students are gifts of my job.
|Last Day of Classes||Wednesday, April 30, 2014|
|Spring Exam Schedule||Review here.|
|Summer Session I||May 27 – July 3, 2014|
|Summer Session II||July 8 – August 9, 2014|
Blessings for the week ahead,
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs