Reading: From Discourse on the Psalms, St. Augustine of Hippo
“Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because in the life to come we shall rejoice forever in praising God. We won’t be ready for that life of praise unless we train ourselves for it in this life now.”
“So we praise God during our earthly life, and at the same time we lift up our petitions. Our praise is expressed with joy, our petitions with yearning. For we have been promised a glory we possess now only in part. Because the promise of glory was made by the Lord who keeps promises, we trust it and are glad; but since full possession is delayed, we long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised. When yearning is over, praise alone will remain.”
“So I urge you, praise God! That is what we tell each other when we say, ‘Alleluia.’ You say to your neighbor, “Praise the Lord!” and your neighbor says the same to you. When we say, “Alleluia,” we are urging one another to praise the Lord. And this praise comes from our whole being; in other words, we praise God not with our lips and voices alone, but with our minds, our lives, and with all we have and do.”
“We are praising God now, assembled as we are here in church; but when we go on our various ways again, it may seem as if we stop praising God. But if we do not cease to live a just life, we shall always be praising God. You cease to praise God only when you swerve from the path of justice. If you never turn aside from that path, your tongue may be silent, but your life will cry aloud, Alleluia! Praise the Lord!”
Sermon: “And Alleluia Is Our Song”
I don’t know if you noticed, but during Lent not a single Alleluia escaped our lips in worship. Maybe you sneaked one in at home or at work, but here in this sanctuary we didn’t say or sing Alleluia for six straight weeks. And that was by design.
Banishing Alleluias in Lent is a custom that dates to the 4th century. Some congregations even have a ritual for it—the kids make alleluias out of cardboard and glitter. During worship they lock them away in a box. And there they remain until Easter Day when Easter joy resurrects them.
Alleluia is one of a handful of Hebrew words we still use in Christian worship, along with Hosanna and Amen. Words with a surplus of meaning. Words so expressive ‘as is’ that the church has never wanted to translate them.
Hosanna—the heart’s cry for salvation and deliverance.
Amen—the word of faith-filled assent, the people’s word.
And Alleluia—the shining word of praise, the transporting word that fills earth with heaven.
But not in Lent. Not in the sacrificial season. The missing Alleluia is a form of fasting. We’re meant to feel its absence and to long for its return as we long for life to spring from death.
The 4th century North African bishop, St Augustine, is credited with a famous saying about Christians—“We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” He never said it, at least not exactly that way, but he could have. He preached often about Easter and about the Easter Alleluia. He called it the believer’s defining song, the song we’ll sing forever in paradise, which is why we need to train for it now by singing it a lot on earth. It’s a song we don’t even have to voice. As long as we live justly, Augustine says, our lives will sing it for us.
Alleluia—our defining song. Without it, we aren’t fully ourselves. It’s hard, even unnatural, for us not to sing it. And so after six weeks of silence when Easter finally comes, we break out. During the Fifty Days of Eastertide, we say and sing as many Alleluias as we can, as often as we can. Like catching up on all the chocolate we gave up, or the beer, in these weeks we’re catching up on Alleluias.
By their joyful sound and sheer proliferation, we alert the whole world to what Easter has done for us—the indestructible hope it’s given us, the love we experience that never turns us away, the promise of everlasting life. When we sing Alleluia into the world, we invite everyone who hears it into that same hope, that same love, that same new life: We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.
But let’s be honest. We don’t always feel like Easter people. We don’t always feel like singing. When a brutal winter leaves us grumpy and exhausted; when an illness knocks the hope out of us; when the human mayhem and natural disaster we read about in the headlines shocks and depresses us, we find ourselves asking, Where’s Easter in all this? How in the hell can I sing Alleluia’? How in this hell can anyone sing Alleluia?
Now, that’s a good theological question, but we don’t always treat it with respect in church. Sometimes we call it ‘doubt’ and repress it. You look around and everyone else appears to be singing lustily at the top of their lungs, and if you find it hard to join in, you wonder if the problem is you: Maybe I just lack faith. Maybe if I just tried harder to believe, I could sing Alleluia in that big beautiful trumpet-y way you’re supposed to sing it. Maybe if I had more faith, I could sing it right, without the sadness of knowing how many people in this world are suffering as I sing, without the depression of knowing how many tyrants are still upon their thrones.
A composer-in-residence at a congregation I know used to write occasional pieces for the choir. One year she wrote an Easter Cantata that didn’t have a big showy trumpet part. Its lyrics were mystical, and it was mostly in a minor key. It lacked swelling crescendos. It did have an Alleluia, at the very end, but it was not particularly cheerful or triumphant. It was more poignant and wistful, deep and full of mystery.
After the service, a leader of the congregation came flying up to the pastor. He was livid. “That wasn’t Easter,” he said. “That wasn’t Easter. Don’t you ever let anything like that happen in this church again!”
By the time Easter rolled around the next year, that pastor had left that congregation to serve another, so I don’t know what they sang that holy day. What I do know is that that angry parishioner was wrong when he said, “That wasn’t Easter.” He was wrong to think that the only real Easter joy is unclouded, the only real Easter songs are energetic anthems in the key of D with soaring descants for bold sopranos.
A minor key Alleluia is as much Easter as any major one. What that dear lamb didn’t notice was how many people around him were weeping as it was being sung,, how many stones were rolling away from the entrances of their personal tombs.
That was Easter every bit as much as the first Easter was Easter—you remember, the one that happened when, while it was still dark, “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”Like that other Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeping outside her brother’s tomb. So many stones, So many tombs. So many tears.
“And as Mary wept,” the story goes on, “she stooped to look inside.”
In a 2008 Easter sermon, Kate Layzer asks:
Do you know what that’s like? When a life has ended, and you’re not ready for it to end? All you can do is turn and look back. Back to a past that’s leaving you behind. And you don’t want to be left behind. You would do anything to stop time from sweeping the one you love away and out of sight, while you’re stranded there, alone.
For Mary, life was wherever Jesus was. That’s how it is when you’ve grown to love someone that much. Now he’s gone, and he’s taken life with him. And to make matters worse, there’s no body. No body to weep over.
And when I hear that, I think of the family and friends of people lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Family and friends of African immigrants drowned at sea. The disappeared, taken by militias and never seen again. And of people buried under the rubble of earthquakes and bombed-out buildings in war-ravaged cities. No body to weep over. Just an emptiness where a living presence once had been. An emptiness, a sorrow, a hanging question.
And that’s how Easter begins. That’s how Easter unfolds. That’s where Easter always is. In all sorts of hellish places, be they global or intimate. It’s there that the Lord of Life sets up a throne.
And Mary stood weeping at the tomb. And then… ‘Mary,’ Jesus says. He returns in the midst of tears. ‘Mary,’ he says. And death gives way to life.
Easter always comes like this—in the midst of tears. We just might sing our purest Alleluias in the grave, in the ruins, in our pain, from the place of our most honest questions. It’s not a matter of more faith or better faith. Please don’t wait for perfect faith to sing an Alleluia. Just sing one wherever you are with whatever you’ve got.
Anybody can sing in the sun. When we sing in the deluge, when we refuse to stop singing no matter how bad it gets, when we choke out the song of life through tears, that’s when—that’s precisely how—the world knows that Easter is true.
As Kate says: In the face of all the things there are to complain about, Alleluia.
In the face of all the things there are to be angry about, Alleluia.
In the face of all the things that frighten us and make us pull back into our shells, Alleluia.
In the face of all the things that break our hearts, Alleluia.
In good times and bad, Alleluia.
With the first cup of coffee in the morning, waking up to the day God has made, Alleluia.
With our last prayer as we’re settling down to sleep—another hard day, yet studded with grace and blessing, Alleluia.
Stuck in traffic, surrounded by dozens of drivers, each with their own story, their desires, hurts, and fears, and that one behind you who just gave you the finger and hit the horn, Alleluia.
When someone you love is dying, and you feel sad and frightened, and yet there’s tenderness there, too, even holiness, in the space where people gather, in the sound of their voices mingling, and the expressions in their faces as they keep vigil, Alleluia!
When your newest grandchild comes into the world, and so much joy breaks forth you forth you’d think it was the first baby ever born, and you can’t help but worry what kind of world you are giving her, Alleluia.
When you turn another year older and you don’t want to think about what year it is, Alleluia.
When you fail others, when you look inside and see how much work Christ’s resurrection still has to do in you, Alleluia.
When you read the paper or listen to the news and grieve, when you become angry, impatient and frustrated, or you just plain yearn with all your heart for the kingdom of God to come, to finally come, Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
We are Easter people. People who know that life has triumphed over death but that somehow the battle still slogs on. People with one foot in joy and the other in longing. People of the already and the not yet.
Alleluia is our song.
A song sung with lives that try to be loving and just. A song lived out against the odds. With or without descants and trumpets, in major and in minor keys, in harmony, in community, alongside some who belt it out and others who can barely whisper, we laugh it into the world, we weep it into the world, we do whatever it takes to sing, ‘Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia…’
It would have been helpful to say which Exposition of the Psalm you quoted at the beginning of this sermon …
Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Ps. 148, 1 and 2, condensed and paraphrased.
Wow! With the swells and crescendos, it sounds like a sermon. Is it? It’s a powerful reminder.
Augustine’s piece is from a commentary on the Psalms. The rest is a sermon I preached at the Wellesley Congregational Church UCC in Wellesley, MA, in 2015.