Monday, April 13, 2009

The History Of Hallelujah

Great Easter Vigil.2009.St. Paul’s.Sparks
Holy Week is a ritual of death and grief.
It is ritual that faces our darkness.
It is ritual that creates a moonless night in the soul.
That is why we say a certain word tonight
– a word we did not say for the whole season of Lent.
I want to tell you the history of this sacred word.
Just as individuals and nations have histories,
and we cannot understand them
without knowing their history,
words have histories.

The history of this word is older than Judaism.
Long before Abraham, many thousands of years ago,
an ancient people wandered the wilderness of Canaan.
This was so long ago, people had little defense
against wild animals and the forces of nature.
And torches were hard to come by in the desert.
They were afraid of the dark out there.
Darkness left them blind and helpless.

But the moon lightened their darkness.
The moon over the desert is especially beautiful,
and to those ancient people, it was comforting.
It was a sign of hope.
And so they worshiped the moon as a god,
a god of light in the darkness.

But, as we all know, that the moon wanes each month
and eventually even disappears from the sky.
But we are confident it will come back.
Ancient peoples did not understand
why the moon disappeared
and they may not have been confident
it would come back.

Even if they were sure the moon would be back,
each night that it waned was darker and gloomier.
And the night of the dark moon, was the worst.
In our Christian year, Holy Week leads us
to the night of the dark moon.
The moonless night represents those times
when we can’t see any reason for hope,
or feel any comfort or consolation.
It is the night when everything, even our religion,
maybe especially our religion,
seems false and powerless to save us
from whatever is causing our despair.

It could be our own personal losses in this economic crisis.
It could be the death of someone we love.
It could be the failure of a relationship.
Life has all to many ways to lead us
to this dark night in the desert.
So we know something about how our ancient ancestors felt
on the night of the dark moon.
But the next night was the new moon.

On that night, all the people stood beneath the desert sky
and shouted joyful greetings to the new moon.
In the primitive language, that would someday grow into Hebrew,
the word for new was “ha” and the word for moon was “lel.”
So they looked into the sky and shouted together ha-lel, ha-lel.

Hundreds of year went by
and the Jewish people came to believe in one god.
His name was Yahweh or simply Yah.
And they tried to worship him alone.
But so many centuries of worshiping the moon,
and greeting the new moon with a festival of joy
-- those were traditions that just would not die.

Most of the Jewish prophets said to the people,
stop those new moon festivals.
They are pagan.
But the people would not stop.
They knew better than the prophets.
They knew the return of the new moon
was a sign of grace and hope.
Over time, over a very long time,
the people and the prophets came to a compromise.
They found a way to blend their ancient tradition
with this new religion, Judaism.

They would continue celebrate the return
of each new moon,
but they would remember that the one God, Yah,
had made the moon for their light and consolation.

So they would stand in the desert night,
looking into the sacred sky,
and they would shout:
Ha-lel-yah; ha-lel-yah – the new moon from God.

That is where we get our word Hallelujah,
or Alleluia.
It is our word of praise for the new moon grace,
for even a sliver of light that delivers us from darkness,
for even a glimpse of God’s mercy that lifts us from despair.

This sacred word means that it is when we are in our darkest night
that God comes to us with hope and light.
The crucifixion of Christ was our darkest hour.
His resurrection is new hope, new life coming
when we least expect it.

The rhythm of our lives doesn’t always align
with the liturgical seasons.
Ash Wednesday may find us feeling hopeful,
and Easter Sunday may find us in despair.
But the rolling round of the liturgical seasons
reminds us that life does roll round,
and that hope does not die.
It just goes invisible sometimes.
It also reminds us that when hope reappears,
it isn’t as the full moon bathing our world in light.

It is as that thin sliver of light.
It was the thin sliver of light that evoked
the ancient shout of praise.

Hallelujah is not so much the word for when we
unreservedly exuberant as for the times when we
are broken but in our brokenness
there is a faint glimmer of life,
a subtle taste of appreciation for life.

Leornard Cohen expressed he deeper, poignant meaning
of our sacred word in his song Hallelujah.
It’s a strange and intriguing song that was not originally a hit,
but nonetheless prompted covers by multiple artists
like K. D. Lang, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright.

The song is built around the moral and political fall of King David
and imagines him as the Psalmist singing
Hallelujah even from his fallen state.

Every artist varies the lyrics, but these are the lines that say it best:
“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch . . .
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah. . . .
And it’s not a cry you can hear at night.
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah. . . “

Any fool can shout Praise God
when their team is ahead, their stocks are up, and
their families are winning prizes for excellence.
That’s full moon praise.
But Hallelujah is new moon praise.

Ours is to find the faintest glimmer of glory
and shout our acclamation.
The fact that there is one empty tomb in Jerusalem
is our hope that, in the fullness of time,
all tombs will be emptied
One blind man given his sight on the roadside
is our hope that someday we will all see the truth.
One leper cleansed is our hope
that all disease will be overcome.
One relationship reconciled
is our hope for an end to war.

So this Great Easter Vigil,
we look for whatever sliver of moonlight
Illumines the darkness of our lives
and know that light is a glimpse of glory.
It is none other than the light of the Risen Christ which processed
into our darkness at the beginning of this vigil.

We do not wait for the full moon to give our thanks and praise.
We anticipate.
St. Paul says the Christian posture is on tip toe
with eager longing for what is coming.
We live into our hope.
When a single candle flame enters the darkened chamber
as entered the darkness of this church tonight,
we begin to chant silently in our hearts,
perhaps to mutter beneath our breath,
“Thanks be to God.”