Sermon: Burying the Alleluia

2 March 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin:
There is a custom in some churches of burying the Alleluia during Lent. In the season of repentance and solemnity that starts on Ash Wednesday, we do not say or sing “Alleluia.” That word of praise to God has a particular association with Easter, so as we prepare for that joyful day of resurrection, we fast from using that word, creating a sense of anticipation so that our “Alleluias” may have even greater joy when we say them again at the Easter Vigil. The custom of burying the Alleluia often involves a banner with the word “Alleluia” drawn on it. On Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, the banner is placed in a box and then hidden somewhere in the church. The buried Alleluia is then opened at the Easter Vigil, a kind of symbolic bursting of the tomb that signifies Jesus Christ’s triumph over death.

I wish we were observing that custom of burying the Alleluia this year, because then we might know what to do with our broken hearts. We could put them in a box with the Alleluia and give them time and space to heal before we try to be joyful again. Laine’s death last Monday is an unbelievable loss. That a vivacious, energetic, cheerful, funny six-year-old should die so young and so suddenly is heartbreaking. That it comes so soon after her sister Mia’s death is crushing. That this happens to genuinely good, loving, faithful people like Mathai and Anna and Mathew, a family that has already borne more than their share of pain in this life, is even more devastating. It is wrong. It is unfair. For many of us, this week has passed in a haze of sadness, tears, and restless nights. We may have raised our fists and shouted our anger at the universe for allowing this to happen. I admit that I have directed a number of four-letter words at God this week; I can’t remember an occasion where being angry with God was more justified than this.

The question of where God is in events like these is a difficult one to answer. It takes us right to the nature of God, of who God is and what God is like. We see some of God’s nature in that moment on the mountaintop in today’s gospel. Jesus encounters God in God’s glory, God’s majesty, and the splendor of God’s radiance. God’s light transforms everything it touches, clothes, grass, people. And God seems distant, utterly other, even from Jesus. The son of God has to climb a mountain to come near to his Father. It all seems very far removed from the messy lives of ordinary human beings.

Yet God is not only like that. We know that the story of Jesus does not end on the mountain. Jesus leaves this transcendent experience with his disciples and starts walking towards Jerusalem, towards his arrest, suffering, and death on the cross. And this, too, is what God is like. God is a human person, walking, breathing, celebrating at a wedding, weeping at the death of his friend. God took on our flesh and blood to share all the possibilities and limitations of our existence. In Jesus, God comes as close to us as it is possible to be. God is one of us; God is with us.

One of our Lent book groups is reading Pastrix, a memoir by the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is foul-mouthed and funny and oh, so real about life and faith and God. She has a chapter about her internship as a hospital chaplain during seminary, in which her role was to be aware of God’s presence in the room while other people did their jobs. On Tuesday in Holy Week, Nadia was paged to the ER, where a thirty-one-year-old woman was dead on arrival. She had been killed when she stepped out of her minivan on the freeway, as her two young children were strapped safely in their car seats. Nadia was asked to care for the kids until family members could get there. She writes, “as I scooted a red fire engine back and forth over the cheerful linoleum, I was aware that for the rest of these boys’ lives, this would be the day their mom died… This would be the day that their mom was taken from them before they could really even know who she was and before she could love them into adulthood.”(1) Nadia had two small children of her own, and she felt this loss keenly, as a parent and as a person of faith. She was aware of God’s presence as she played with these newly motherless children, but she also wanted to slap God good and hard.

I’ll let Nadia speak for herself about sitting in church that Good Friday, three days after the boys’ mother died. She writes, “When the reading of the passion began—the account in John’s Gospel of the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus—I listened with changed ears. I listened with the ears of someone who didn’t just admire and want to imitate Jesus, but had felt him present in the room where two motherless boys played on the floor.

“I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus’ last hours, and I realized that in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share our human story. Even the parts of our human story that are the most painful. God was not sitting in heaven looking down at Jesus’ life and death and cruelly allowing his son to suffer. God was not looking down on the cross. God was hanging from the cross. God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is…

“The passion reading ended, and suddenly I was aware that God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing. God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant in the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital; but instead, God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as [terrible] as the rest of us. There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel—which means ‘God with us.’ We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”(2)

The day after Laine died, I pulled out Nadia’s book and reread this chapter, because she said what I needed to hear, perhaps what we all need to hear right now. God is not watching this from a distant heaven, waiting for us to climb the mountain before God will speak to us. God was hanging on the cross that day on Calvary. God was with Laine in those final moments of her life. God is with Mathai and Anna and Mathew, grieving with them as they absorb this devastating loss. God is here with us, suffering alongside us. And when Laine died, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.(3)

There is one exception to the practice of not saying Alleluia during Lent. That is during a funeral service, when we say it no matter what season it is. As our prayer book goes, “Even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” We grieve knowing that the Christian story does not end with Jesus hanging on the cross. The Christian story continues to the empty tomb, to God’s victory over the power of death, to resurrection. Every Good Friday always leads to Easter morning. Death always leads to new life. We say Alleluia to remind ourselves of that hope, that promise. Today we will shout “Alleluia” with all the strength our broken hearts can muster. And however weak and feeble our voices may sound, we can hold on to the assurance that God always, always triumphs over death.

May we say and hear that joyful word with confidence. May our broken hearts know some comfort. And may we know the presence of Emmanuel, God with us.

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

(1) Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho, 2013), 82.
(2) Ibid., 86.
(3) William Sloane Coffin, “Eulogy for Alex,” (accessed February 28, 2014).

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