The first Palm Sunday was a mob scene. Jesus, riding a borrowed donkey, no weapons, no army, entered Roman-occupied Jerusalem with thousands of other Jews to celebrate Passover. By the end of the week, the people waving palm branches and crying “Hosanna” (“save us!”) would call for his death on a Roman cross. His closest friends would keep their distance or outright deny knowing him.
Every year, Christians around the world recount the events of Holy Week and Easter through our hymns. And, every Palm Sunday we stand, waving branches, to sing “ALL GLORY, LAUD AND HONOR,” words penned in a prison tower by a man of faith who kept his equilibrium, though the wheel of fortune had turned, taking him from venerated to vilified.
THEODULPH’S SONG OF PRAISE
Theodulph, Bishop of Orléans, (c. 750-821) had been a celebrated poet in Charlemagne’s court during a period of medieval renaissance. Widely hailed as a friend of the poor, he helped institute a number of enlightened reforms and, with a nod from the emperor, built public schools.
After Charlemagne’s death, Louis the Pious inherited the throne. Petty and paranoid, he had many people rounded up and held captive, including Theodulph.
Walls and locks cannot confine creativity or faith. Theodulph, the condemned poet, continued to write, including these words of praise in Latin, “Gloria, laus et honor tibi sit, Rex Christe, Redemptor.”
According to the legend, on Palm Sunday in the year 820, when the paranoid emperor passed by the prison tower in a procession of palm-wavers, Theodulph stood at his window and loudly sang.
All glory, laud and honor
to you, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children
made sweet hosannas ring.
The people of the Hebrews
with palms before you went;
our praise and prayer and anthems
before you we present.
Did Emperor Louis stop and listen, moved by the singing? If he did, scholars doubt that he rewarded the bishop with freedom. Accounts vary. Whatever his fate, it is certain that Theodulph, condemned and out-of-favor, could not have known that the words of his hymn would still be sung around the globe more than a thousand years later every Palm Sunday. Thanks to John Mason Neale (1818-1866), we know the words in English translation.
ANOTHER CLASSIC FROM A LONELY CELL
Every year, when I accompany this hymn, I think of Theodulph, continuing to read, study, and write long after the good times were over. The heady days of art and action had faded like a dream, and yet, uncelebrated, he continued to find his voice, sing praise, write poems — without easy answers or the promise of a happy ending.
Martin Luther King, Jr., writing his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, knew himself to be condemned and out-of-favor with his moderate white clergy colleagues. They favored patience and politeness to nonviolent direct action.
Although he strongly suspected that his own personal story would not have a happy ending, he nevertheless trusted the gifts God had given him. Like Theodulph, King picked up his pen and wrote.
Scorned and shunned in a lonely jail cell, he could not have known that his letter would become a classic essay on civil disobedience and Christian discipleship, studied and cherished for decades after his death.
MESSAGE FOR TODAY: KEEP THE FAITH
Like Theodulph and King, others have found their voices and used their gifts, even while all around them mocked, sneered, and threatened. We marvel at their fortitude and stamina, admire their courage and commitment.
But what of us? Most days, our lives are not nearly so dramatic. Still, it doesn’t take a prison cell to make us feel confined, belittled, dispirited. How easy it is to succumb to discouragement and bitterness when our best efforts are ignored, unrecognized, or turned into a joke.
How tempting it is to give in to resignation when blustering bullies reclaim center stage to the cheers of hate-filled mobs.
How seductive is the inner voice that coaxes us into complacency, whispering, “What difference will my one voice make?” How powerful are the rationalizations for inaction, luring us to remain silent in the face of injustice or oppression.
As we prepare for the solemnity of Holy Week in the midst of our busy, demanding lives, may we find in our hearts the faith of Theodulph and Martin, who knew themselves worthy of their gifts and blessed by God’s boundless love, even during times of exclusion, defamation, captivity. Let us, with Theodulph, sing,
As you received their praises,
accept the prayers we bring,
for you delight in goodness,
O good and gracious king.
TO GO DEEPER
Hymn lyrics and music on Hymnary.org
History of Hymns by C. Michael Hawn, The United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries
Text of MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” posted by the African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania
“All Glory, Laud and Honor” sung at King’s College Cambridge, 2013
John Hong’s hymn improvisation on the tune “St. Theodulph”
ART CREDIT: “Jesus Enters Jerusalem” by the Benedictine Sisters of Turvey Abbey (England)