The people of the Hebrews, with palms before Thee went, Our praise and prayer and anthems, before Thee we present.
- Bishop Theodulph of Orleans
For Christians the world over, today is Palm Sunday. Since today is also the beginning of Holy Week, some churches alternate between a Palm Sunday emphasis one year, and calling the day Passion (holy) Sunday the next. Though Jesus bore all the earmarks of "The King of the Jews" during his palm-strewn, donkey ride into Jerusalem, in another five days he would begin a far different journey. This time there would be no palms, no donkey, and no means of travel except by foot. Weakened by beatings and burdened with a cumbersome cross, he would stumble up a hill on the outskirts of the city and face execution.
Triumph and passion: an oxymoron day.
But no matter what we call this day, there are plenty of hymns to magnify its message.
Open the gates of the Temple, wrote American hymnwriter, Fanny Crosby, and strew palms on the Conquerors way. Though blinded by poor medical treatment in infancy, Crosby would shun her handicap and spend her life writing the words to nearly 8,000 hymns, including this Palm Sunday anthem.
Many composers offered to set Crosbys hymn poems to music, including Phoebe Knapp, the wife of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. founder Joseph F. Knapp. The gulf between the blind poet of modest means and her wealthy musician friend didnt exist when they collaborated on hymns about their Lord. Mrs. Knapp borrowed from composer George Frederick Handel to add this refrain to Crosbys hymn: I know that my redeemer liveth And because He lives, I too shall live. Mrs. Knapp didnt skip over the crucifixion part of the story. She just knew the ending before she began her song.
From priest and personal confidant of the 8th-century Emperor Charlemagne, to prisoner of the emperors suspicious son and successor Louis I, Theodulph of Orleans was an unusually devout man. While enduring years of solitary confinement and injustice, the priest found comfort by praying, writing poetry and singing hymns. One day as Louis visited the prison where Theodulph was kept, he heard the priest singing: All glory, laud, and honor to Thee, Redeemer, King; To whom the lips of children, made sweet hosannas ring. The emperor was so moved by the hymn, and so stricken with guilt for imprisoning Theodulph unfairly, that he ordered his immediate release.
It was nearly 1,000 years before Anglican pastor John Neale discovered Theodulphs hymn, translated it from Latin to English, and set the text to an existing German-Lutheran tune. Today, this Palm Sunday hymn which crosses the boundaries of culture, language and time is found in both Protestant and Catholic hymnals, and sung around the world to celebrate our Redeemer-King.
Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang To Jesus who had blessed them, close folded to his breast, the children sang their praises, the simplest and the best.
Whatever hymns we sing today, its obvious that children were also in that palm-waving crowd. Not only are Christmas, Easter and Palm Sunday for children, but Jesus is for children, too. In many churches today, children will be waving their palm branches, or holding them high in a crossed-sword canopy as worshippers arrive, or pastors and musicians proceed to their assigned places.
Jeannette Threlfall, who wrote this Palm Sunday hymn, was another in that large circle of hymnwriters who overcame great obstacles to serve their Lord. This 19th-century English woman was orphaned early, and crippled for life while she was still young, yet she was known for her cheerful disposition and courage. Misfortunes that might have re-duced others to bitterness motivated her to publish a book of poems which she called Sunshine and Shadow. This Palm Sunday hymn for children of all ages was one of them.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.)
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