Hosanna, I was reminded on Palm Sunday, doesn’t mean hooray! It means Please save us.
I forget this, because the Palm Sunday processional is such fun. We’re bouncing on our toes to keep warm as we wait outside the church. (It’s always miserable weather on Palm Sunday…except for this one time we’re all stuck at home in quarantine.) Our deacon is double-checking to make sure everyone’s got an oversized palm branch — and take a folded palm cross. Or two. Then we get the signal, and everyone starts marching or sashaying or traipsing around the parking lot, over the grass, across the sidewalk, awkwardly waving palm branches and sometimes ironically calling, “Hosanna!” while drivers gape at us from their cars. I’m always smiling, laughing, because I want to let loose, but my social anxiety keeps me in check. We’re back at the church again. The red double doors are flung open, and the organ floods the building with “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” We’re belting out not-so-sweet hosannas as we process into church.
Palm Sunday is a happy time.
But hosanna, while hopeful, isn’t necessarily happy.
Please save us.
Holy Week started a day before the surgeon general announces that this week may be the “saddest day of most Americans’ lives” — the week COVID-19 is expected to reveal itself in overrun hospitals and countless deaths.
Lord, have mercy.
I can’t get over how the worst projected week of COVID-19 is occurring simultaneously with Holy Week. No need to imagine the roller coaster of emotions Holy Week’s original participants felt: we’re all hiding in our homes, burdened with whatever suffering or stress quarantine brings, waiting for the all clear to return to normal…or grieving losses that have forever changed our normal. We’re waiting for resurrection, for healing. We’re devastated yet hopeful.
Nor can I get over what a perfect opportunity this is for those of us who are healthy and financially secure to sacrifice our lives for the needy, just as Christ did. He used his divinity to enter into our suffering, to suffer with and for us, forever bridging the divine and the human. He emptied himself of all that he deserved that we might have abundant life.
As Palm Sunday’s epistle reading said,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. // Philippians 2:5-8
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but also the interests of others,” Paul concludes (v. 4).
This pandemic gave me a new way of looking at this passage.
In the evangelical world, there’s a lot of respect for Christians who risk their physical lives for proselytizing, leading churches, or circulating Bibles in anti-Christian countries. I used to fret about whether I’d have the sort of faith to lay down my life for Jesus like that.
It also seems easy for Christians to recognize the Christ-like sacrifice of those who risk their life for another’s — the mother with health problems who carries her baby to term, the Italian priest who gave up his ventilator for a younger patient, the parents who threw themselves in front of their baby during a mass shooting, the soldiers who go off to war for our freedom. When it comes to literally following Christ’s example — literally laying down one’s life in extraordinary circumstances — Christians have no problem.
But when we American Christians are asked to give up other rights and possessions, to empty ourselves out for our neighbor in merely life-altering ways, to be of the same sacrificial mind as Christ during everyday life…well, this pandemic highlights how unwilling many of us are to follow Christ’s footsteps.
I see a lot of Christians balking at requests to restrict their movement out of concern for others’ safety. Healthy individuals are still meeting up in large groups, some defiantly, on purpose, just to stick it to the libs or to Trump’s federal guidelines. Many, not seeing anyone they love sick or dying, find it reasonable to risk millions of lives so that their lifestyle and economic prosperity can continue unhindered. Some find it reasonable and heroic that medical personnel should risk their lives in overwhelmed healthcare systems, and that Grandma and Grandpa should be willing to die for their grandchildren’s future economic prosperity.
Again, there’s our odd infatuation with and normalization of people sacrificially dying for others, yet balking at being a living sacrifice for others.
Of course, there’s nuance here. There’s a conversation to be had. It’s prudent, I think, to debate which liberties are necessary to restrict and which hardships are necessary to endure. Suffering needlessly is not a virtue, and it’s true that social distancing has many negative effects on the mental and physical well-being of all Americans. Domestic and child abuse are up, mental illness has been exacerbated, income and job-related healthcare have been lost, and people must work harder to get necessary help and community.
That’s not something to be taken lightly, and I don’t think we should shut down conversations that take seriously both COVID-19 and the negative effects of social distancing, in a bid to work toward the most effective solutions.
And while I disagree to such an extent that I find it paranoid, I do at least understand the fear many conservative Christians have about their religious liberties being taken away. Many genuinely believe the government is using the pandemic as cover to take away constitutional rights. I agree that all constitutional rights should be preserved as fully as possible as long as it doesn’t significantly endanger anyone’s health. Voting should still take place via mail-in ballots (looking at you, my infuriating home state of Wisconsin). Due process for the incarcerated should still be happening via remote court proceedings. The beatings and death threats other authoritarian cultures are employing to ensure social distancing are absolutely unacceptable and unjust. There’s obviously a lot of gray area (and some black and white) about what’s reasonable and what’s oppressive, and we should talk about that.
But while I do see those conversations happening, I’m also seeing brazen defiance toward the very idea of giving up anything meaningful for the sake of neighbor. Christians theoretically willing to lay down their lives to save their neighbors’ souls are completely unwilling to lay down their political right to anything to save their neighbors’ lives.
When it comes to politics (a.k.a., our neighbors’ physical well-being), the mindset of, “This is America; I do what I want” seems to replace that radically rights-emptying mind of Christ. “We’re the church. We do what we want (and cry ‘persecution!’ and ‘government takeover!!!’ when asked to take the same public health steps as everybody else).”
I can’t square this default refusal to even consider sacrificing our liberties and happiness in any circumstance during the week we celebrate Christ showing us that sometimes love transcends life itself. Maybe that’s a faithfully American response, a constitutionally correct response — I don’t know. But when I read my Bible plain the way many claim to, it’s not a remotely Christian attitude. It’s hypocritical to want our Christian values reflected in politics when it comes to protecting our rights, but not want the sacrificial life of Christ reflected also.
How do we protect rights while emulating Christ’s radical, sacrificial life? For me, it comes down to this: Are we asking the weak among us to give up their rights for the strong, or are we asking the strong to give up their rights for the weak? In countries where citizens have few rights or Christians are oppressed, it may indeed an unjust, risky sacrifice to support government-sanctioned lockdowns. I’m not sure, as I don’t live in such a country. I live in America where my rights are enshrined in law and where the people are empowered to protect them. I am a financially secure, healthy, young Christian with access to Zoom Bible studies, services, coffee hours, and prayer meetings. Since I have been given much, it is my Christian duty to take the hit to my life, liberties, and finances when my neighbor is too weak to survive the hit alone.
It’s absolutely anti-Christian to ask the weakest among us — the poor, the elderly, the immunocompromised — to sacrifice their right to live, to the tune of millions, while the financially stable, the healthy, and the young continue on with all of our rights intact and unscathed. It is not oppressive to ask the strong to lay down their lifestyles for the weak.
Again, there’s nuance here too. We are all a mix of strength and weakness. Social distancing affects us all in different ways. Where the social distancing measures are too much for some, we who are strong must sacrifice our desire to live life untroubled by others’ suffering, and give of our time, money, and love.
As people of faith, we can sacrifice these things because we know resurrection is coming. We are not being asked to give up our happiness, liberties, or even life itself forever. It will be restored to us. Yes, I am talking directly about the social distancing measures our states have adopted. Yes, I am talking directly about a spiritual reality that I do hope bears out despite my doubts.
But what I do believe with absolute certainty? This socially distanced Holy Week is an invitation to take our emulation of Christ’s radical love into our political, physical lives.
Jesus, please save us.