Why Do We Bury the Alleluias?
This is rather strange behavior, isn't it? We put a bright, beautiful alleluia banner into a miniature coffin, and 'bury' it by keeping it out of sight for the next 6 weeks, during which time we also don't sing alleluia in the divine service. Why on earth would we do such things?
We bury the alleluias for the same reason we have the 6 week season of Lent. Both burying the alleluias and Lent remind us that we have no right to be singing alleluias. Joy, celebration, hearty partying are not our right. We have no right to the good times. We don't deserve to enjoy ourselves.
Of course the world disagrees. The world tells people that they deserve a break today; they've earned a right to kick up their heels. Reasons for rejoicing, excuses for partying, occasions for revelry don't come often enough for the world. Thanksgiving ,Christmas, New Years, Superbowl, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day aren't enough for the world. It invents festivals and fairs for everything from automobiles to zoology. For 70% of the weekends a year, there are opportunities for revelry within driving distance. For the other 30% there are birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, or graduations to be celebrated.
Should life be one long celebration? Some think so. Today we bury that idea, and on Wednesday we begin to live without it. At the end of service today, we face the reality that we don't deserve to have a good time, to feel good, to be happy. How can we be happy when we have all these rules, laws, and standards hanging over our heads? Don't do that! Do this! Stop doing that and start doing this! Never does the point come where we can say, 'I've done enough. I'm finished; I can rest; I can party now.' No matter what we do, say, or even think God has a command to regulate it. God promises a party only to the one who keeps them all.
We're like a 5 year old in a china shop with narrow aisles and packed shelves. Our father has promised to take us to McDonald's after we leave the shop if we don't break anything. That's impossible given our 5 year old nature and the fact that we're pressed on every side by breakable objects. In just this way the laws, commandments, and standards of God keep us hemmed in on every side. We can party all right, we can sing alleluias, if we do everything God commands.
If not, if we will not or cannot do all that God says, we most certainly don't deserve either parties or alleluias. What we do deserve is judgment, punishment, pain and suffering. We don't deserve to party and sing and forget about all the beautiful things of God we broke. On the contrary, we deserve to have our faces rubbed in them. God shouldn't sweep the broken china under the carpet. He should make us walk on it.
We need to be reminded that we have no right to sing alleluias, to party, to rejoice, to celebrate. We don't deserve roses but thorns, not diamonds but coal, not alleluias but ashes. The only One who ever merited or deserved the good, the best, the fun things of life was Jesus. He came out of the narrow ailed china shop without breaking a thing. He deserved roses, diamonds, and alleluias but He got thorns, coal, and ashes. He got the punishment we deserve, so that we might get what He deserved.
Well, wait a minute then. If we are to get what Jesus deserved, then alleluias, celebration, and rejoicing do belong to us! What possible reason could those of us in Christ have for burying alleluias today and being marked with ashes on Wednesday? What sin of mine can you point to that Christ didn't die for? What dirty, black guilt of mine can you paint with ashes if Christ has carried them all away from me? Why shouldn't those of us in Christ party not just every weekend but every day of our lives?
Historically Christians have buried their alleluias today and been marked with ashes on Wednesday to remind themselves that there is a time for restraint. There's a time for even the forgiven, the saved, the redeemed to control their joy, to silence their alleluias. I think this is particularly important for us Christians in America who live in unheard of abundance. While we wake up everyday of our lives wondering what we will eat, much of the world wakes up wondering if it will eat. We feed our pets better than many in the world feed their children. We complain about stress and overtime while much of the world dies before 50 and works and suffers right up till they die.
There's a time for restraint brothers and sisters in and of Christ. No matter how good the times might be here for us, this still isn't heaven. We are like the Old Testament Church. We haven't yet reached the Promised Land. We are still in the desolate wilderness wandering about. O there are times of celebration and joy, but we never want to think this is the end of our journey. We never want to be content to stay in the wilderness outside the land the Lord has promised to us. We never want to be citizens in a land the Lord meant for us to pass through.
There are times in this fallen world to remind ourselves that we are only passing through, what we see around us, even the beauty and the joys are not the goal of our journey. While all things are lawful to us as Christians, while Christ has freed us from the curse of the law to enjoy this life to the fullest, there is a time to restrain ourselves. While we are heirs to this earth, there is a time to not make full use of our inheritance. While with Christ, we reign over this world right now, there is a time to act like strangers here.
There is a time to put distance between us and this world to mourn even though the world sees no reason for it, to put on ashes even though the world thinks the good times should roll on and on. Why? Because as St. John tells us, 'Do not love the world, nor the things of the world. Whoever is a friend of the world is an enemy of God. Friendship with the world is death.' This fallen world is a very alluring place to us fallen people. For this reason, St. Paul tells us he restrained his body as if it were a boxing opponent that could only be subdued by blows. St. Paul knew that as a Christian all things were lawful, but he didn't let himself do whatever he wanted. He beat down the desire to celebrate and to make full use of the things of this life.
We bury our alleluias and have Lent for the same reason. Our goal is as we pray in one of our Collects, 'to so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.' Putting away the alleluias and putting on the ashes is our way of detaching ourselves from the sinking ship of this world. We detach ourselves from this world by these physical acts which mirror what Christ has done for us spiritually. He has called us out of this world in our baptisms putting a whole flood of gracious water between us and it. His Word separates us from those who don't listen to it. His Body and Blood in Communion mark us the way the Body and Blood of the Passover Lamb marked the Old Testament Church.
Food and drink, good times and joy are no more sinful than singing alleluia at the top of your lungs is. But there is a time to remember that this world is fallen, doomed and lost, while we in Jesus are fallen but found and saved. We forego singing alleluias, we put on ashes, and we have special services during the week not to focus on our doing these things, not even to focus on our sins, but to focus on Jesus only.
The Lenten season is the time when Jesus does to us what He did to Peter, James, and John. He led them away to a high mountain. Jesus took them away from all the distractions of their day to day lives. He took them to a place where He could be center stage in their lives. On this mountain, Jesus became brighter, better, and more glorious than anything else on earth or even in heaven. Jesus wants to do this for us too during Lent.
For one hour each Wednesday, Jesus wants to take you away with Him to focus on the things of His holy life, not on the things of your sinful one. He calls you to focus on Him rather than on the problems and pains you have in this life. For one special hour each Wednesday all the things of this life fade into the background and heaven itself comes down to earth. We step out of our hassled and harried life into the mansions of eternity where Jesus radiates in glory.
We gather each Wednesday to do what the 3 disciples were told to do. 'Listen to Him.' What we see going on in our text is what the military calls a change of command ceremony. Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the great miracle working prophet from the Old Testament Church are only there momentarily. Then they're taken away and only Jesus is left. The disciples are no longer to be followers of the Law and the prophets but of Jesus. He is there new Commander. Where they had been clinging to the Law and the Prophets as God's final word, they are now to hear Jesus. His Word is to be the final word.
In Lent, we too specially focus on Jesus' Words. We listen to Him rather than to the cacophony of voices coming from our world. We listen to Jesus rather than to the opinions of people. We listen to Jesus rather than to the what the world believes. We listen to Jesus rather than to what we feel. Throughout the year our goal is to listen to Jesus, but sometimes our lives are so noisy we can't hear Him. Lent calls us out of the world so we can clearly hear the Words of Jesus.
We need to hear what Jesus has to say. Things like guilt, worry, and sorrow make loud noises in our lives. In blaring voices, they shout, 'There's no hope for your sins, your future, or your sadness.' In Lent we come away from those voices to hear Jesus only. He says, 'All the things you see Me suffering during Lent, I endure for you. I'm bearing your guilt, worries, and sorrows. Listen to Me, if they're on My back, they can't be on yours. Though you feel guilty, worried, and sad, these are only feelings. I've taken the reality of these things off of you.'
Nothing, not even our joys, are to get between us and the Jesus who does this for us. That's why we bury the alleluias. In our text we see Peter wanting to hang on to the alleluias. He thinks nothing could be better in life than to be on that mountain forever with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But there is something better than the most intense joy this world has to offer. Contrary to all reason and expectation, it's far below the mountain top joys we know in this life. It's on a dirty, little hill called Calvary on a cruel, bloody cross where Jesus hangs nailed there for the sins of the world. Here at this place of suffering and self-denial our sins and the sins of the world are paid for, carried off, removed by Jesus. Here is the place where blackened faces are washed clean forever and alleluias eternally brought from the heart. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Transfiguration (3-2-03), Mark 9:2-9