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Hosanna in the Highest
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 04 - 2009

We must weave intricate designs in search of reasons to smile, writes Gamal Nkrumah
"Gratitude," says the Bishop of Helwan and Maasara Anba Basanti, "and the expectation of good, the anticipation of redemption and salvation in place of suffering and scarcity."
Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, is the topic of his conversation -- and it is to be identified as the heralding of victory over negativity, it is joy in anticipation of good.
"Sundays," Anba Basanti muses, "are days of the Lord. Sunday is the Day of the Lord in the New Testament, and Saturday is the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament." Here is a clear continuum between old and new -- the Old Testament shared and venerated by both Jews and Christians, and the New Testament, exclusively Christian. "Both Sundays and Saturdays are sacred," Anba Basanti philosophically tells Al-Ahram Weekly.
But more specifically, life's emotional and existential nadir, embodied in Jesus Christ's sufferings on Good Friday, ushers in new life.
Passion is, after all, the beginning of the unfolding of good.
First, there is the expression of happiness, the exclamation hosanna, in the face of the indignities suffered by the faithful. Hosanna is not just an expression of joy. It is the hopeful anticipation of salvation. Jesus Christ was mocked by the high priests as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. What king enters his city thus borne?
Such a king is otherworldly -- he has little if anything in common with the princes of this world. Theirs are crowns of gold studded with diamonds, his of thorns. Humility and long-suffering constancy are the hallmarks of Christ the King.
The triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem occurred on the Sunday of the week immediately preceding his death and resurrection, according to Christian belief. It is a very special occasion. At its root, a case for introspection and retrospection, Palm Sunday is also a re- examination of one's assumptions about the certitudes and one's readiness to spot and exploit moments of cataclysmic changes.
Jesus Christ was poised to undergo the most trying of experiences, but also the most sublime. True Christians have always thrived in times of upheaval. Hosanna, the liturgical Aramaic and Hebrew word declaring the Messiaship of Jesus, is the expression of just such implausible exultation. Like Spring, Palm Sunday and Easter signify change for the better, for summer and sunshine -- at least as far as the Northern Hemisphere is concerned.
According to Christian tradition, Jesus was to suffer and die, overcome death and then be uplifted in triumphal ascension. The beauty of Palm Sunday is that he knew the great test that lay in his path, yet courageously remained expectant of good -- of a glorious and happy end.
The one time and place where he instantly became a highly regarded insider was in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He was hailed as King of the Jews, yet he expressed humility, entering his capital city on a colt. The experience was exhilarating, not just to Jesus, but to his followers as well. By that time he had already impressed a lot of people. They looked up to him for salvation and redemption. These are recurring themes, buzzwords in the Christian liturgy.
The colt signifies humility. Jesus Christ was the embodiment of meekness. He is the shepherd who guides and jealously guards his flock. To this day, in many parts of the Middle East, shepherds are found leading their flocks seated on donkeys. In more ways than one, Jesus Christ remained something of an outsider. He abhorred the mundane. His genuine humility earned him the wrath of the arrogant and self-righteous Pharisees. For Jesus Christ, the solution was meekness, not submission to the whims and dictates of the powers that be.
Saturdays and Sundays are special days in different ways. Sunday is about overcoming death and signifies the Ascension. Saturday is about redemption and salvation. Coptic Christians fast on both Saturdays and Sundays throughout Lent. However, because those two days are holy days for Christians, the Copts eat three meals a day as they usually do on ordinary days. For the rest of the week, from Monday to Friday, Copts fast like Muslims and do not eat or drink during daylight, breaking the fast after sunset or after an afternoon or early evening mass. However, unlike Muslims, when Copts break the fast they do not eat flesh -- no animal products.
The same goes for Sundays and Saturdays. And on this annual occasion, Sunday becomes symbolic of hope, a hope that takes the curious form of palm fronds. Their identification as sacred objects with ritualistic and religious significance harks back to the days of the Pharaohs: how the nimble fingers burned today of overwork will forge tomorrow's weavers.
The Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian traditions celebrate Palm Sunday on different days, a week apart -- this year they fall on 12 April and 5 April, respectively, while in 2010 and 2011, Palm Sunday will fall on 28 March and 17 April respectively for all Christian churches Eastern and Western.
To celebrate Palm Sunday, I spent most of the afternoon with Abuna Bishara, a priest working under Anba Basanti, trying to find out why the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian calendars differ. Lent, in both traditions, constitutes the 40 days preceding Easter, when Christians eat less -- in the Coptic Orthodox Church they forgo all flesh and animal produce, including dairy products. Many Christians also eschew wrongdoing and give up habits they enjoy. "Lent is a period of sacrifice. It is of special significance to Christians because it is identified with the 40 days in which Jesus Christ struggled in the wilderness against the Devil. He triumphed over evil."
Far from being a mendaciously contrived dilemma about palm fronds, as it turns out, Passion Sunday is a deep spiritual encounter: "We, in the Coptic Orthodox Church fast for 55 days, not just the 40 days of Lent observed in the Western Catholic and Protestant traditions. We add an extra week to compensate for the four Saturdays when the congregation does not fast from dawn to dusk."
The Biblical account of Palm Sunday is recorded in the four different Canonical Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is recounted in Matthew 21: 1-11; Mark 11: 1-11; Luke 19: 28-44 and John 12: 12-19 with remarkably little variation.
The ancient biblical legend abets a pernicious myth. There are oblique references to Old Testament passages. Curiously, Jerusalem welcoming Jesus Christ assumes the role of a beautiful bride awaiting the arrival of her beau. He is a chivalrous Prince Charming who rescues her from her predicament. She is a damsel in distress. He is the Redeemer, and yet he is gentle and self-effacing. "Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, proclaim it aloud O daughter of Jerusalem, behold the King is coming to thee, just and a Saviour, he is meek and riding an ass and a young foal."
These are the sacred words recorded in the Old Testament Septuagint, Zechariah 9:9, which survived into Christian liturgy.
On the sixth and last Sunday of Lent, palm leaves are tied into crosses. Certain geographical localities are sacred. Elx, Spain, is home to Europe's largest palm groves. The festivities marking Palm Sunday are celebrated differently in different parts of the world.
Flowers are strewn in India, following in the footsteps of their Hindu and Buddhist ancestors, Christians in southern India stage processions on Palm Sundays with sweet- smelling flowers lining the path of the faithful and devotees.
An instrument closely associated with Palm Sunday and Easter more generally is the aspergillum -- a liturgical implement used to sprinkle holy water on a congregation. An aspersorium, or holy bucket, often accompanies the aspergillum. In certain Eastern Orthodox churches, such as the Russian, the ashhpergillum is replaced by a whisk. The whisk is decorated with a shock of hair of a furry beast such as a bear. In certain countries olive branches and pussy willow substitute palm fronds.
Traditions revolving around Palm Sunday differ but the essence of the celebrations remains the same. In certain cultures, most notably Spain and parts of Latin America, Palm Sunday is associated with weaving, dress-making and acquiring new accouterments, especially garments. Domingo de Ramos, quien estrena algo, se le caen las manos -- On Palm Sunday, the hands drop off those who fail to wear something new.
In Tsarist Russia, tradition dictated that on Palm Sunday, the Tsar walked on foot accompanied by the Patriarch of Moscow who was seated on a donkey, in an enactment of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem of Jesus Christ, into the Russian capital's historic Red Square. The procession was a venerated affair steeped in tradition. With the advent of Communism, the ancient tradition of the procession was abandoned.
As far as the Communist authorities of Russia were concerned the Russian Orthodox Church had wasted enough time on gesture politics under the guise of religion. The rituals associated with Passion Sunday have been revived in many countries around the world, not just in Russia. It would be a shame to miss a chance to partake of this revival.


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