What “Hosanna” Means
Q: What does the word “hosanna” mean and how did it become part of the liturgy?
A: Hosanna is a Hebrew term which is derived from the words yasha, which means “save,” and na, which is an expression of entreaty or request and can be translated in a variety of ways–for example, “now,” “I pray,” “I beseech,” “please,” or “O.” The two Hebrew terms were combined–yasha na (“O, save!”), as in Psalm 118:25–and this became pronounced “hosanna.”
Because of this, “hosanna” has been part of the liturgy at least since the composition of Psalm 118, which was a liturgical composition. In fact, once it was compiled, the book of Psalms served as the hymnbook for the Second Temple in Jerusalem prior to the time of Christ.
“Hosanna” was also used as part of the Jewish Temple liturgy during the feast of Tabernacles, when the priests would carry willow branches and cry “hosanna” while processing around the altar of burnt offering. Over time, the crowd gathered to worship picked it up, and it became a cry of joy. The seventh day of Tabernacles even came to be called “Hosanna Day.”
Thus the crowd greeted the Messiah waving palm branches and joyfully crying “hosanna” to the Messiah as he entered Jerusalem. By this time, the term may have lost some of its original meaning and been mostly an acclamation of joy and petition.
However, it would have still carried the air of a joyful petition for deliverance Thus the expression from the Triumphal Entry, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”, would be an exhortation to acclaim or praise the Messiah in hopes of deliverance (probably from the hated Romans in the mind of the crowd).
The expression “Hosanna in the highest!” is more mysterious. Suggestions have included the idea that it is an exhortation to cry “hosanna” to God, that it is an exhortation to the angels to cry “hosanna” to God, that it is an exhortation for there to be songs of praise in heaven, and even that the phrase means “Up with your branches!” (on the unlikely supposition that the branches carried during the feast of Tabernacles had come to be called “hosannas”).
The term hosanna passed smoothly from Jewish to Christian liturgy. “Hosanna” was used as part of Mass in the first century. The Didache (A.D. 70) includes the acclamation “Hosanna to the God of David” among the congregation’s responses during the prayer of thanksgiving after Communion.
Today at Mass we say, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” This prayer is called the Sanctus, because that is its first word in Latin and it is called the Trisagion (a Greek name for the three “holy”s it starts with). The first line is the hymn of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. The second part is what the crowd cried to Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:9), which is modeled after Psalm 118:25. Thus the joyful Messianic exhortation, “O, save!” has come down to the liturgy of today.