Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
It feels good, doesn’t it, to bring that word back out into use, after 40 days of banning it from our liturgy. We should enjoy it while we can, because in fact in the West we don’t shout Alleluia much except in Eastertide. The Orthodox Church, by contrast, uses it constantly, even in Lent and at funerals. The Resurrection is never out of the mind of an Orthodox Christian.
St Augustine in the 4th century gave his fellow Christians a sort of mission statement: We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song. But the western Christians who venerate St Augustine have been much better at being Good Friday people, singing “Lord have mercy” at every opportunity. (I have heard it said that the modern Church of England might be described as a Harvest Sunday people, with All things bright and beautiful is our song, and maybe there is some truth in that too.) Perhaps the Book of Common Prayer, with all its beauty and dignity, is the extreme example of the Good Friday tendency. I couldn’t find a single Alleluia in it – but maybe someone can put me right on this! The word does, of course, appear quite often in hymns and oratorios – Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus being the best corrective to several centuries of Anglican reticence.
By contrast, we will say or sing Alleluia at least three dozen times in the course of this morning’s service. So it might be worth thinking about the word. Where does it come from and what does it mean? It’s one of those words that the Greek New Testament left untranslated from the Hebrew. Alleluia, or Hallelujah – they are the same word of course in the original – is an instruction in the Hebrew language. If you want to be technical, it is a verb form in the second person masculine plural imperative, ordering people to give praise with joyful song – that is the hallelu part. Jah is a shortened form of the sacred name of God, which cannot really be translated but is understood to mean “I am”. So a fuller translation of Alleluia might be “Burst out in songs of praise to the One who is”.
Alleluia appears at the beginning and end of many of the psalms. Older translations of the Bible, and the Prayer Book itself, translate it as “Praise the Lord”. In the Common Worship psalter “Praise the Lord” has been translated back to “Alleluia”.
In Christian tradition, Alleluia has changed from being an instruction to praise the Lord into an actual word of joyful praise. If you have ever attended a Pentecostal service you will know how it is used to punctuate the worship with spontaneous praise. If you preach or lead prayers in a service where people are used to doing this, as I once did, you discover there is a sort rhythmic wave that lifts you up and carries you along – whenever the worship leader draws breath there will be a shout of Halle-LU-jah, or Yes, Lord! or A-MEN! It becomes a dialogue between speaker and congregation. People say Alleluia as if they really mean it.
But we are not Pentecostals, and most of us have been schooled in English ways of murmuring rather than shouting in church. We are rather suspicious of unbridled joy and emotionalism – we don’t wave our arms in worship or cry or laugh out loud. Perhaps we are all the poorer for that. But however restrained our natural expression may be, let joy spring up in our hearts today, because Christ is risen.
Many of us worry about exactly what we are claiming when we say that. The Lent groups spent five weeks poring over the Nicene Creed and several participants confessed to feeling quite ambivalent about much of what it contains. We wonder what we can proclaim with honesty about the virgin birth, Christ’s return in glory, and the resurrection of the body.
May I offer a word of encouragement here? When we say Alleluia, we are not ticking a checklist of doctrines. What our minds understand by the resurrection is not the point. What we are doing is praising God who has done something new and marvellous – we read of it in the gospels, and we experience it in our own lives. Resurrection is not a past event but a present gift.
The disciples were transformed by a mysterious series of encounters that they struggled to describe to each other. Somehow everything was suddenly different and new. Christ who had died was more truly present than ever. They couldn’t begin to explain how this worked. They simply knew it was a fact. And they began to change the world with this news.
I remember that just after Easter in 1994 I watched a TV interview conducted by Melvyn Bragg with the playwright Dennis Potter, who was dying of cancer and knew it. It was one of the most astonishing and memorable bits of television I have ever seen. I am sure some of you remember it. Here was a man, as far as I know not a believer in any sense, in chronic pain, bravely facing his death which occurred just a couple of months later, and he expressed something about eternal life that I think cannot be bettered by religious language. This is part of what he said to Melvyn Bragg:
We’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, and we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is, and it is now only… The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.
Below my window in Ross, when I’m working … at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance … not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
What Dennis Potter was celebrating was what he called nowness, the present tense, and what in Christian language is called eternal life.
Very often Christians are accused of believing that we slog through a vale of tears here on earth in the forlorn hope that things will be better by and by in a fuzzy spiritual world if we are good enough to get there. No wonder that any intelligent person in the 21st century shakes the dust of such a belief off their shoes. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any ground for this peculiar and life-denying outlook. Apart from anything else, it turns the resurrection of Christ into nothing more than a sort of travel agent’s flyer for something that we might look forward to if we save up!
No. Dennis Potter is quite right. The shout of Alleluia praises the God that IS. As he says, the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. That is what we celebrate on Easter morning. Here in our midst, the Isness is real. It has happened. God has broken through history and parked his tent on our lawn. Time with all its regrets and disappointments has been overthrown. Eternal life is what the risen Christ invites us into. It starts at our baptism, and it never ends. Death’s power is broken.
Christ is risen, we are risen! we will sing in our offertory hymn today. Not Christ is risen, maybe one day we will rise too, but we ARE risen. In our baptism we are initiated into the nowness of eternal life. Today we open our eyes to the blossomest blossoms, the glory of the present moment in which the living God meets us at every turn.
Let our hearts shout Alleluia! Amen.