The crowd’s adoring cry of “Hosanna,” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a colt 2,000 years ago, might today be the call: “You da man!” or “You rock!” said Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory in his homily March 28 for Palm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. He said people today can praise Jesus by living their faith, every day of their lives.

The Palm Sunday liturgy includes two Gospel readings, the joyful one about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the somber retelling of the Passion, in which Jesus is arrested, tried and executed on the cross. Cardinal Gregory’s homily linked the two events, which are commemorated at opposite ends of Holy Week.

 “Hosanna means ‘save us, we beseech you,’” he explained, equating the use of the Hebrew exclamation to current expressions such as “just do it” or “SOS.”   

When used as terms of adoration, the words are fickle, he continued, and they reflect a less-than-enduring devotion toward whoever may be contemporary heroes and heroines. Just so, the cardinal said, at the time Jesus was triumphantly welcomed into Jerusalem, “He knew that these words, as flattering as they may have sounded at the time, would not survive the week. They would be replaced by the deafening bellows, ‘Crucify Him!’ Moreover, in so dying He would therefore actually accomplish what hosanna really meant.”

Pandemic precautions were still very much in place for the liturgy. People in the cathedral’s congregation were at social distances in the pews. With only a couple of exceptions -- for the celebrant (at times) and the sign language interpreter -- everyone in the church was wearing a mask, including singers and lectors.

In the photo above, Cardinal Gregory blesses palms at the beginning of the March 28 Palm Sunday Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and in the photo below, he carries palm fronds as he processes to the altar. (Archdiocese of Washington photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Palm frond segments were blessed in a bundle at the back of the cathedral, to be picked up by the congregation on their way home. Before the coronavirus pandemic they would have been distributed ahead of Mass on the cathedral steps, for the congregation to form a joyful procession into the church. This year, the people remained in their seats except for Communion and they were asked not to join in the singing.

The small choir, standing far apart from each other at the front of the cathedral, sang choruses of “Hosanna!” and “Glory, Praise and Honor,” in the first portion of the liturgy that focuses on Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. During Communion and at the end of the Mass, the hymns were the more somber, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” and “O Sacred Head Surrounded.”

Amid the petitions that included prayers for those impacted by the coronavirus and for those engaged in addressing the pandemic, Cardinal Gregory also asked for prayers for himself, as March 28 marked the 62nd anniversary of his Baptism, at age 11 in 1959 when he attended St. Carthage School in Chicago.

People in the congregation at the March 28 Palm Sunday Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral wore face masks and maintained social distances, in accord with safety guidelines at local Catholic churches during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

In his homily, the cardinal said all people “need to use words that last beyond their utterance…. Hosanna sounds wonderful and offers an acclamation of affirmation, but it is our daily living that reveals what we really mean when we acclaim the Lord Jesus as the Son of David and our Redeemer. We need words that reveal our hearts and commit our futures.”

The week’s events in Jesus’s time and today begin with cries of “Hosanna,” but before the palms of Sunday become brittle, the cries will turn to “Crucify Him,” he said.

“Public accolades are exciting and even energizing, but living our religious convictions is the only validation of faith that Christ really asks from any of us,” Cardinal Gregory said. “Being merciful and loving, being generous and forgiving, being patient and compassionate are the ways that go far beyond the words that we may speak on Palm Sunday – or any day of the week.  For you see in truth, He really is “da Man,’”… as we recognize that He wants us to live as His people every day.”

“Our young people may say ‘you rock,’” he concluded. “But the way we live gives meaning to those words.”