Hosanna. —”And the multitudes that went before and that followed, cried, saying: Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest” (Matt., xxi, 9; cf. Matt., xxi, 15, Mark, xi, 9, 10, John, xii, 13). Thayer’s contention in Hastings’ “Diet of the Bible” that the word hosanna was derived from Psalm lxxxvi, 2, does not seem to have much to support it. The general opinion is that of St. Jerome, that the word originated from two Hebrew words of Psalm cxvii (cxviii), 25. This psalm, “Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus”, was recited by one of the priests every day during the procession round the altar, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when the people were commanded to “rejoice before the Lord” (Lev., xxiii, 40); and on the seventh day it was recited each time during the seven processions. When the priest reached verses 25-26, the trumpet sounded, all the people, including boys, waved their branches of palms, myrtles, willows, etc., and shouted with the priest the words: “O Domine, salvum (me) lac; o Domine, bene prosperare. Benedictus qui vent in nomine Domini!” The Hebrew for salvum fac or serva nunc was hoshi’a na. This was repeated so frequently that it became abbreviated into hosanna; the seventh day of the feast was called the Great Hosanna; and the palm-branches of willow, myrtles, etc., received the name of hosannas.
The Feast of Tabernacles was a season of great rejoicing, and it was a saying amongst the Jews that those who had not witnessed it did not know what joy meant. In this way hosanna became associated with rejoicing. The same has to be said of the use of palm-branches. In I Mach., xiii, 51-52, we read: “And they entered… with thanksgiving, and branches of palm-trees, and harps, and cymbals, and psalteries, and hymns, and canticles, because the great enemy was destroyed out of Israel; and he ordained that these days should be kept every year with gladness.” In II Mach., x, 6, 7: “And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of tabernacles.” On these occasions hosanna was, doubtless, exclaimed in tones of joy and triumph. Like all acclamations in frequent use it lost its primary meaning, and became a kind of vivat or hurrah of joy, triumph, and exultation. It is clear from the Gospels that it was in this manner it was uttered by the crowd on Palm Sunday. St. Luke has instead of hosanna in excelsis “peace in heaven and glory on high”.
It was with this indefinite meaning that the word hosanna passed, at a very early date, into the liturgies of the Church; a position which it has ever since retained both in the East and the West. It is found in the “Didache“, and the “Apostolic Constitutions“. Eusebius (H. E., II, xxiii), quoting the account given by Hegesippus of the death of St. James, has: “And as many as were confirmed and gloried in the testimony of James, and said Hosanna to the Son of David”, etc. St. Clement of Alexandria says it meant “light, glory, praise”. St. Augustine (in 2nd Lesson for Saturday before Palm Sunday) says: “Vox autem obsecrantis est, hosanna, sicut nonnulli dicunt qui hebraeam linguam noverunt, magis affectum indicans, quam rem aliquam significans, sicut sunt in lingua latina, quas interjectiones vocant.” (According to some who are versed in Hebrew, hosanna is a word of supplication, used like the interjections in Latin, to express feeling and other than to signify a thing.) In every Mass the word hosanna is said twice during the Sanctus at the end of the Preface. It is sung by the choir at high Mass. It is also repeatedly sung during the distribution of the palms, and the solemn procession on Palm Sunday. We gather from St. Jerome (Matt., xxi, 15) etc. that the faithful, in some places, were accustomed to salute bishops and holy men with cries of hosanna. Modern Jews have a procession of palm-branches, in the synagogue, every day during the Feast of Tabernacles, in September, while prayers called hosannas are recited. The joyous character of the festival receives its fullest expression on the seventh day, the popular name of which is The Great Hosanna (Hosha’na Rabba) (Oesterley and Box, “Religion and Worship of the Synagogue“, and the Mishna tract Sukkah, III, 8).