Alleluia and Hallelujah
Homily: "Alleluia and Hallelujah"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs
What’s all this “alleluia-ing” about? And why do so many Easter hymns have so many of them? Well, I’ll tell you: “Alleluia” is an Anglicized version of “Hallelujah,” which comes from the Hebrew expression that mean “Praise the Lord.” Whether you start and end it with an “H” or start and end it with an “A,” it means the same thing: “Praise the Lord.” In most Christian churches, singing “Alleluia” is banned during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, and in some churches they even have a ceremonial “burying” of the word at the start of Lent and then they “resurrect” it on Easter.
So, you might be asking yourself: Why do we sing “Alleluia,” or “Praise the Lord” in a Unitarian Universalist church? Or, for that matter, why do we celebrate Easter at all? There are a few reasons, I think. First, both Unitarianism and Universalism have their roots in Christianity. And, while the Unitarians didn’t believe that Jesus was God come down to Earth, our Universalist ancestors did. So we celebrate Easter and sing “Alleluia” to honor our heritage. Another reason we do it is out of respect for those in our congregation who consider themselves Christian: Those who grew up in a Christian faith and still hold dear many of the holidays and traditions they celebrated. Just as we recognize holidays in other faiths and in other traditions, like Rosh Hashanah or Divali, as UU’s we want to honor and recognize Christianity. Because today, Unitarian Universalism is a big enough tent to welcome that variety, including people who want to “Praise the Lord.” Can I get an Amen and an Alleluia to that? A third reason we celebrate Easter is because we know that, even though we may not believe in the resurrection of Jesus three days after he died as fact – as literal truth – we know in our hearts that the Easter story contains many truths.
We know, for example, that death and resurrection are a part of the natural cycle of things. Every autumn, the leaves change color and die. They fall to the ground, and if they’re left there long enough, they disintegrate and become part of the soil. And that soil, in turn, feeds the plants and flowers that bloom so riotously every spring. Without the death of Fall, we wouldn’t have the birth of Spring. Birth, life, death, decay, and rebirth are all part of life. Jesus was born, he lived, he died, he was reborn. It’s all – and we’re all – part of the natural cycle of things. The Easter story is one way we remind ourselves that, in order to have the spring, we need the fall and winter that come before it.
Another message embedded in the Easter story is that, because all of life is a cycle, it has no beginning and no end. Christians frame this as Jesus dying for our sins to give us everlasting life, to fulfill the promise of our own resurrection after our death. But even if you don’t believe that part of the story, Easter reminds us that death isn’t necessarily the end. That we didn’t start at our birth and that we don’t end when we die. Easter says that there’s something more. That we keep going ‘round and ‘round in this endless cycle of change. As UU’s, most of us don’t believe in the bodily resurrection. But the Easter story tells us that we can have faith that we live on in some form. It might be as memories of us that others hold onto. Or maybe it’s just as organic matter that degrades and is reborn in the plants and trees. Maybe we live on as an energy that flows through the Universe. Whatever your particular perspective, Easter tells us that any and all of these are possible. And, so, Easter is a story that helps us hold onto hope.
The Easter story is also a reminder of another truth of our living: out of death, new life can emerge. Not just in the sense of spring coming out of fall, but in a deeper, perhaps more personal way. How many of us have had the experience of loss, of pain, of separation, of desperation? How many of us have had what I call our “tomb time?” Our time when we’re trapped in the dark and we’re convinced that there’s no end in sight. That we’re going to be there forever. That the stone will never be rolled back and that we’ll never return to the land of the living? Maybe it’s after the death of a loved one. Maybe it’s when we get a dire diagnosis. Perhaps it’s when we hit rock bottom with our addiction. My own tomb time came many years ago, when I was in the depths of my depression. I know what it’s like to be trapped in that tomb, and maybe you do, too. And the hard truth is that we don’t all make it out. There are no guarantees, as much as we’d like to believe it to be so.
But how many of us have our own Easter stories to tell? Stories of the Earth quaking and the stone – somehow, miraculously – being rolled back. Or maybe our Easter morning is more ordinary than that. Maybe our resurrection story is about working on that stone with a spoon or our fingernails, chipping away at it little by little, year after year, until one day we break through and catch a glimpse of light penetrating the darkness? And we keep working and working on it until we’re finally free. Either way, whether it happens in a flash of lightning with a host of heavenly angels, or all alone through our own relentless persistence, we get there. And I don’t want to make this out to be too aggrandizing, but all of us with our own resurrection stories? We’re like Jesus. Because our stories become Easter stories that can inspire others. Inspire them to hold on until their own stones are finally rolled away.
I don’t believe that we need to be broken to become whole. Wholeness arrives in many ways and takes many forms. But I do believe in the essential truth of Easter: that we can find wholeness out of our brokenness. That we can move from the darkness of the tomb into the light of a new day. That our failures, our pains, our losses need not be the end of our story. They can be the beginning of a new tale, a new life. This is what the Easter holiday means to me, and for that I say “Alleluia” and “Hallelujah.”