By: Rev. Paul Scalia
At our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we hear these familiar words: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest! (Mt 21:9) We know them, of course, from the Mass. But to appreciate their significance in that context – and beyond – we need to understand both their original meaning and their place on Palm Sunday.
First, their original context. The words come from Psalm 118, commonly understood to have been composed in the 6th century B.C. for the dedication of the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The Psalm was subsequently used in pilgrimage processions up to the Temple for the Feast of Booths. As the people ascended to the Temple they sang of the Lord’s fidelity and goodness to His people. Reaching the Temple gates, they cried out, Open the gates of righteousness; I will enter and thank the Lord (118:19). And then the priests would greet the pilgrims: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord (Ps 118:26).
So that phrase, so familiar to us in reference to Jesus Christ, originally referred to the Temple pilgrims. Only those who approached in the name of the Lord – that is, having entrusted themselves to the Lord – could enter the Temple. Over the centuries, however, the meaning of the phrase changed. It came to be associated with the long-awaited Messiah’s Temple entrance. By our Lord’s time the verse was charged with Messianic meaning. Thus for the crowds to cry out Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest! was not just to greet Jesus, but to proclaim Him as the Messiah. No wonder then that the Pharisees objected and asked Him to silence the crowds (cf. Lk 19:38).
So the crowds used this phrase for our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. But Jesus Himself applies it to another event: His second coming. After the Palm Sunday entrance our Lord laments over Jerusalem as He foresees its coming destruction:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Mt 23:37-39).
They failed to recognize Him as the Messiah when He first entered Jerusalem – mercifully and meekly, riding on a donkey. As a result they will recognize Him only when He comes in power and glory, for judgment, on the last day. Then they will say with fear and trembling what they should have said earlier with joy and exultation: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
The verse therefore has these three meanings: the original, centuries before Christ’s birth; the messianic, as He enters Jerusalem; and the final, when He comes in glory. The Church’s Liturgy, however, adds still another meaning. In the Mass, we use the verse to acknowledge another coming of the Lord, between Palm Sunday and the Day of Judgment. As the Catechism explains, the acclamation “is taken up by the Church in the ‘Sanctus’ of the Eucharistic liturgy that introduces the memorial of the Lord’s Passover” (CCC 559). Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, we pray as we prepare to encounter Him in the Eucharist. In the Extraordinary Form the singing of the Sanctus is often divided such that these words come after the Consecration. Thus immediately after Jesus has been made present sacramentally in the Eucharist, the choir responds on behalf of all, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Whatever the details of the various traditions, the common practice is clear: to greet the Eucharistic entrance of Jesus as the crowds greeted Him in Jerusalem and as all will hail Him on the last day.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem centuries ago. Now we greet Him in the Eucharist as He again comes to us humbly, meekly. He comes to us not visible, but hidden under the form of bread and wine; not riding on an ass, but (even more humbly) in the hands of a priest. At every Mass we have the opportunity to imitate the crowds in Jerusalem that hailed Him in His meekness. Interestingly, the ancient entrance chant for Palm Sunday refers to the children (pueri hebraeorum) who ran out to meet our Lord. That detail indicates the disposition we should have at Mass. We ought to be as simple and unaffected as children in greeting our Lord. Leaving aside all sophistications and pretensions, knowing full well our smallness and need for a Savior, we sing to Him plainly and joyfully.
Jesus will return to judge the world at a day and hour we do not know. Our greeting Him at Mass is ordered toward that moment. We greet His humble entrance at Mass so that we can greet His glorious and powerful return at the end of the world. Indeed, the manner of our greeting Him on the last day depends on how simply and confidently we say at Mass, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.