Hosanna vs. Hallelujah

This past week, in Montgomery County, teachers many jurisdictions tried in various ways to connect with their students.  Some classes met via Zoom; others linked up via email, phone, and text message.  Teachers around the nation have organized processions in their students’ neighborhoods, driving by in cars to wave and to show that they miss their elementary school students.  It was a heart-warming gesture in the midst of so much uncertainty, unrest, and necessary social distancing measures.  Teachers at Shadowlawn Elementary School near Jacksonville, Florida, participated in a “teacher caravan” through their students’ neighborhood and then posted pictures on the school’s Facebook page. In less than 24 hours of planning time, the parade of teachers managed to reach seven neighborhoods with 20 cars and 31 faculty and staff members, all practicing social distancing via their cars.[1]

I thought of hard-working teachers, far and wide, this week as I considered our text from Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus enters Jerusalem, accompanied by disciples, riding a donkey, greeted by those on the sidelines in the city where he passed.  Scholars tell us it was a servants’ kind of procession—Jesus chose a humble beast of burden, a reminder that those who serve can often be seen in more mundane and behind-the-scenes settings—the grocery worker re-stocking the shelves, the cashier that offers a smile after ringing up our purchases, the garbage collectors who collect our trash, the nurse who takes our temperature, and yes, the teacher who tries to connect with her students.  These workers do this for the able and those who are disabled, for those who are sick and those who are well, for the symptomatic and asymptomatic, for the thankful and the ingrateful, for the blessed and for the cursed, for those who are sensitive to their needs and those who couldn’t give a dang.  We should remember this.

Scholars suspect that Jesus entered Jerusalem for during the time of Passover, and that he entered from the Eastern Gate, as the text says he entered from the Mt. of Olives.  They contrast this “rough and tumble” procession with a different kind of procession that may have happened on the other side of the city—the power, prestige, and sheer wealth of Caesar’s entry from the Western Gate.  Whatever parade might have happened from the Empire’s side would have been for show, not for service, a display intended to invoke fawning and fear, might and majesty, polish, pomp and pretense.  That parade would likely have been all about empire, and not about the people or their particular and sundry needs.  Caesar would have entered the city on a tall and strong horse, one bred for the purpose, certainly not a donkey taken from a rustic village.  Caesar and his entourage would have likely been about the “visuals” and not the actuals, about perception and the Empire’s numbers, and not necessarily about the one who cleaned up after his demonstration or those who were seen as low on Empire’s social hierarchy.

So, we might ask ourselves in this time of Covid-19 pandemic, what is on parade and for whom?  What and who do we celebrate and why?  Are we lifting the helpers, assisting those who are trying to help, and sharing resources as we can?

What kind of moral calculations are we making as we travel this difficult Lenten road to our own Jerusalem and moment of reckoning?  In response to several such calculations by various individuals in the Washington Post, one person astutely commented,“The sign of a civilized society is how we care for the most vulnerable, [and our] measuring citizens by their “productivity” and “output” is about as dystopian as it gets.”[2]  Are we facing down the kind of corrupt moral calculations that would demand vulnerable lives for the economy’s better functioning and more rosy future?  When we use ‘productivity’ as a measure of worth in the Empire, we are all truly diminished.  By what do we measure someone’s worth to society?  To our community?   Does a human life—one diminished by age, ability, or ‘productivity’ deserve to be thrown under the bus of the economy?  These are the calculations of Empire…these were and still are the calculations that angered Jesus.

When Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem to look around, he was incensed at those who would take economic advantage of the pilgrims who came to pray and sacrifice.

What we can learn from these ancient texts is that Empire will consistently demand that our economy be the primary sign of well-being.  However, a much greater sign is our capacity to love and to serve others in the midst of terrible times, not leaving the vulnerable or seemingly “unproductive” behind.

This past week, Rev. Jim Keat from the Riverside Church also urged us preachers not to get our hosannas mixed up with our hallelujahs. [3] We remember that the disciples who entered Jerusalem that day were shouting Hosanna, not Hallelujah.  Hosanna means “save us,” “help us.”  They were not praising so much as praying for help and assistance.  Why?  Because they felt oppressed by those who could not “see” them, by those who could not “see” their labor, by those who consistently elevated the mighty over the weak, and by those who would take economic advantage of their poverty and lack of resources.

Over the weekend, Governor Hogan urged all Marylanders to pray or reflect today—whatever their faith—on the lives we have lost around the world and for those who are trying to fight this hard battle against an invisible, deadly virus.  In so many words, he urged Marylanders to engage in a “hosanna” moment by praying for each other, by blessing the dead and dying, and by extending our care and concern for those who are collectively putting their lives at risk to serve and help the community.  Truly, it was an inspiring and poignant moment to see  civic leader lifting up the truth that every one of us has a part to play—some by serving on the front lines in hospitals and medical units, some by keeping our essential services functioning, some by simply showing up to do what needs to be done, and many by staying home and practicing social distancing.

In this time of hosanna, we recognize that the things that Jesus needs, the things that we might need from each other, have very little to do with appearance, the GNP, or our ability to maintain our investment portfolios.  We cry hosanna—save us, help us—because we are reminded that we are all—from the least to the mightiest—vulnerable and necessary to the miracle of well-being, communal health, and the restoration that will come.

None of us is exempt from our participation in this procession of love.  All of us have the ability, even at home, to demonstrate for one another the best of human nature and not the worst.  We do not need to be perfect, powerful, well-heeled, or well-placed—we need only show up as the disciples that Christ has asked us to be.  To consider and protect those who are more at risk, even as we are healthy.  To practice kindness and forbearance when we are challenged.  To remember that while we may fear economic collapse and that of others, our strength does not lie in dollars and cents, investments, and liquid assets.  Our strength has always resided in our hearts and our willingness to care for, and share with, one another.

Finally, blessed are you who come to this Holy Week and to this holy moment within this pandemic in the name of your God.  Blessed are you who try to see love coming, humble and helping, on this difficult road which has asked for your humanity.  Blessed are you who cry Hosanna with those who are hurting, hosanna with the fallen, hosanna with the ones who lack equipment and resources, hosanna with our communities, and hosanna with the ones who meet our needs, and hosanna with the helpers.  Our hallelujahs, our praises will come.  They are not mutually exclusive.

May you have no shame or shyness in crying Hosanna to your God, together with sisters and brothers around the world.







[2] Mark Fisher, “He urged saving the economy over protecting those who are ‘not productive’ from the coronavirus. Then he faced America’s wrath,” March 20, 2020.,

[3] See Rev. Jim Keat’s video:

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