One of the prayers that I pray most often from our prayer book is the anthem found on page 492 in the Burial Office; we don’t often pray it at our funerals because it is the alternate for the beloved, “I am the resurrection and the life…” that gives deep comfort in times of grief. I pray this anthem, however, whenever there is a great tragedy: a natural disaster, an instance of mass violence, and recently, on a regular basis as we navigate this heavy and difficult season. It’s a prayer that names that, “in the midst of life, we are in death,” and the verse that has hit me the hardest during this time is “ Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts; shut not your ears to our prayers, but spare us, O Lord. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.” In my prayer, as the rhythm of that repeated refrain Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, draws my mind to a meditative space, I have been caught by, “but spare us, O Lord.” Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful one – spare us, O Lord.
Right now, a lot of my prayers can be summed up in that one line, “spare us, O Lord.” Spare us from the ways in which this virus is spreading, spare us from the anxiety and fear that are so prevalent everywhere we look, spare us from the emotional and social isolation that we know is needed for physical distancing so that we can stay healthy at home as our governor repeatedly asked of us. Spare us . . . spare us . . . spare us. As my prayer rests on this currently, it is no surprise that in today’s readings, the thing that was most compelling from our Liturgy of the Palms for this holy day was the people’s cry of Hosanna!
This is a holy day, and the start of our Holy Week, but we know that things are not normal this year. And even as we do all that we can do to help prevent the spread of the virus by staying home, it’s okay if we don’t like it; it’s okay to long to be together and to have things return to normal. Know that each of your clergy so desperately wish that we could be celebrating, praying, and worshipping with you in person on this day.
One of the reasons that I keep getting caught by the people’s cries of “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters Jerusalem shortly before Passover is that I knew that we would not get to process together up 12th Street from our garden to the red doors giving our own shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes from heaven!” I knew that instead our cries of Hosanna would come from our porches, or our living rooms, or our decks. That for those of us who live alone that our cries of Hosanna would ring out in a solitary way, or for those of us with young kids, our cries of Hosanna are accompanied with screaming for no apart reason whatsoever, or for those of us who are afraid, our cries of Hosanna have a little tremble in them, they are quieter, more desperate.
The reason I kept getting caught by the cries of Hosanna from this reading from Matthew, is that Hosanna has come to mean all glory, laud, and honor; it has come to be an exclamation of praise and support. But what the Hebrew actually means, what Hosanna literally means is “save us.” When we give our cries of Hosanna from our own homes today as we celebrate Palm Sunday, we are literally crying out, save us! Save us! Save us!
There is a narrative in the rhythm of the church year that Palm Sunday is a glorious, happy day, that is full of parades and celebration by the people greeting Jesus, and that it quickly descends into the dread of Holy Week before the service is even over. But when we, especially with the lens through which we are living right now, when we are able to see that the cries of the people weren’t just celebratory, that they were also a plea to be saved, we realize that the contrast of Palm Sunday to the rest of Holy Week isn’t quite as stark as we once thought. Especially not this year.
Because the question for us as we prepare to walk the Way of the Cross, has to be what do we need to be saved from? When we join our cries of Hosanna to all the Christians around the world shouting the same, and all the Christians who have come before us, from what do we desire to be saved?
Our pleas to be saved might rest in saving the human race from this disease, to save us as everything around us seems to crumble, and to help protect those medical professionals who willingly walk toward this disease in order to help those already affected. I think, though, that our cries to save us (which by the way: hear me when I say that cries to save us from COVID-19 in no way absolve us from following protection orders, or that prayer somehow negates the science and the medical advice we are being given on a daily basis) but that our cries to save us have to center on salvation from our own fear and anxiety. That when we give rise to our cries of Hosanna, we are asking God to help save us from a scarcity mindset that is only focused on our individual or familial survival.
That when we give rise to our cries of Hosanna (and again, hear me when I say, that cries for our salvation is not some plea to a prosperity gospel that promises that we will not suffer, physically or financially from this global pandemic) but that when we give our cries of Hosanna at the start of this Holy Week, that we are asking that God save us from ourselves. That we be saved from anything that draws our hearts and minds to things other than what we know to be true: that God is redeeming all things. That the Way of the Cross this week will lead to death, but that it also leads to resurrection. That things are difficult now, and that they will likely get worse before they get better, but that the church has survived, that God’s people have continually showed up to seek and serve others, that we are mindful that each human is created in the image of God, and that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because in the midst of our grief and in this global crisis, we give rise to our cries of Hosanna! And trust that God is redeeming all things.
Even in a crisis, the way in which we are redeemed, the way in which we are saved, is by walking the Way of the Cross, it is by following Christ, even though we know that walking this path leads to death upon the cross. My prayer as we enter this Holy Week in this unprecedented time, is that we can be comforted by the promises we make at our baptism. That we can rest in the grace and peace afforded to us by the God who redeems all things. And that we can, as always, give rise to our cries of Hosanna and trust that we will be saved.
A sermon delivered via livestream to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Palm Sunday Year A, April 5, 2020.