Alleluias and Ashes
Leonard Cohen's 1984 song "Hallelujah" was sung at the fund raiser for Haiti and immediately became the most popular download. Another artist recorded it for the teen drama "OC", and that version became a best seller. The same thing happened when another artist's version was used for the "Shrek" movie. Why is this song that originally had 80 verses and even now has 15 so popular? Why does it seem fitting that this song, that is really about a love gone wrong, should be broadcast every Saturday at 2 AM by the Israeli defense force's radio channel? (www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music /rockandjazzmusic/3833494/Hallelujah)Why is this love song so apropos in the face of tragedy? Because it's the pairing of an upbeat word with a downbeat reality.
There is something alluring, haunting, and maybe even hallowing about things that shouldn't go together but strangely do: Bitter/sweet; sweet and sour, alleluias and ashes. That last one is where our appreciation of strange pairings comes from. The alleluias of faith and salvation paired with the ashes of sin and death. We know deep down that there must be both, and this realization, this faith, comes from even stranger pairings than alleluias and ashes. Pairings no man would dare imagine let alone make.
The first pairing is that of deity and humanity, of God and Man. Reason stumbles over this and so denies it. There can't be a Being who is both God and Man. Deity could use humanity; God could assume the form of a man, but to say this Man is God is ridiculous. How could the infinite be in the finite? 4 pounds of sugar won't fit in a sugar bowl. If you don't want a monster like a Minotaur a being with the head of a bull and the body of a man or a Centaur a being with the head of man and the body of a horse then the best you can do is Hercules. He was a demigod, but "demi" is French for "half." Hercules was half god and half man.
Jesus is full God and full man. We've just spent the last six weeks celebrating that Jesus is God in Man made manifest. We've worshipped at the manger with the shepherds; we've worshipped at the cradle with the wise men. It would be wrong, indeed idolatrous, to worship anyone or thing that isn't true God. A half-God won't do. The true God demands that He alone be worshipped. The Man Jesus can and must be worshipped because He is true God. In fact Scripture teaches apart from the worship of Jesus you don't really worship the true God, "He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him."
In the womb of the Virgin, deity was forever paired with humanity. The impossible happened. And now before we descend with Jesus into the ashes of Lent, He takes us to the Mount of Transfiguration and shows us the incarnation. Here's what it means to say God descended into our dust to raise our dust to heaven. Here's what it means to say God took on flesh and blood. It's not a superhuman man like Hercules. It's the fullness of the Sun in a light bulb. It's a lightening strike in a bottle.
Let this lighting strike join, fuse, weld the truth of who Jesus is to your mind. It did this for Peter and John. Thirty years later Peter writes in his second letter that he and other apostles "were eyewitnesses of His majesty," and that Jesus "received honor and glory from the Father." Sixty years later John tells us in his first letter that the apostles "have seen with our eyes and our hands have touched the Word of life." Deity didn't just descended into the dust of our humanity, He took our dust on. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
But there's a stranger, even more impossible pairing than this. Not only does the Transfiguration show us that Deity has taken on our dust but our ashes. On Wednesday I will say to you what God first said to Adam in judgment, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return," and then I'll smear ashes on your forehead as a sign of that truth. Adam's sin marks us all, infects us all, corrupts us all, kills us all. Though it take 70, 80 or more years our end is no different than what science fiction portrays happening instantly: from body to dust particles.
We weren't created to end this way. No, God took dust and formed it by hand into man and from the newly formed dust He made the glory of man, woman. But not being satisfied where God had placed them, how God had made them, they reached for more and got only ashes. And infected with the sin of Adam, you've repeated it again and again. You thought you could be more than dust, more than a creature. You blamed others or God for your sin. You reached for what was forbidden you because that always seemed better than what you had, and what have you got? Ashes, death, and judgment. Though only once a year are you so marked, that death sentence echoes in your head and heart all year long.
And it should; you deserve it; you've earned it. The wages of even one sin is death. The amazing, startling, unbelievable thing is not that humanity is paired with mortality but that deity is! Jesus Himself made the pairing for the apostles right before taking them up the Mount of Transfiguration. He said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and He must be killed."
Sin inevitably leads us to death, but not so the God-Man Jesus. He had no sins. He lived in the same fallen world you do, but never once sinned not with His hands, mouth, or even heart. The Man Jesus could have ascended into heaven accompanied by joyous alleluias without one whip lashing Him, one nail piercing Him, one ash marring Him. But Jesus wouldn't go without us, and you can't take sinners into heaven without paying for their sins, and the payment God's law requires is death. So God did the unthinkable. In the Person of Jesus, He died for sinners. He allowed the Father to make Him to be sin for our sakes. That means, Jesus saw the ash pile of your sins and rolled around in it till He was covered from head to toe in ashes, so much so that the Father said, "Get away from Me," and abandoned Him to eternal death itself. Deity has not only taken on our dust but our ashes: Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
But there's more. There's another pairing that I want you take away from the Mount of Transfiguration. It's you and life. Though you have the sentence of ashes to ashes, dust to dust writ large over your life, though every fiber of your being preaches death to you, Jesus wants you to go down from this mountain to face the ashes of Wednesday with the hallelujah of life on your lips. Peter did, or at least he ended up there, and I can prove it.
Luke doesn't say the saints of heaven talk with Jesus about "His departure" as if Jesus was going to the airport. No, they talk with Jesus about literally His "exodus." Jesus' death was no more a defeat for Him than the Exodus was a defeat for Moses. Jesus would pass through the wormwood, the gall, the blood, the beatings, the crucifixion, and the hell victoriously as Moses did the Red Sea. And what about Sin, Death, and the Devil? They would be destroyed by Jesus' exodus even as the armies of Pharaoh were by the Exodus of Moses.
It's relatively easy to see how Jesus can be paired with victory over death, how Deity can be paired with immortality, but what about you? Follow Peter here. Peter writes his second letter with his death imminent. He's concerned that the Church have good accounts of Jesus. He says, "I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things." He describes his approaching death by crucifixion as "my departure," and yes, it's the same Greek word "exodus."
When Peter dies, or any of you in Christ, you're not departing forever into dust and ashes, you're exodus-ing into the Promised Land of eternal milk and honey. Though you die such a gruesome death as crucifixion, in Jesus you die free of your sins, not at the mercy of the Devil, and as we sing in a hymn you "die not when you die." Though medicine, philosophy, reason, and your own fallen flesh testify that "dead is dead," the Transfiguration testifies that death is an exodus.
There's more proof that the Holy Spirit via the pen of Luke wants you to pair this event before the ashes of Lent with the alleluias after. Luke alone tells you it was about 8 days after Jesus prophesied His own brutal death that the Transfiguration happened. Matthew and Mark tell you it was 6 days. It is true that sometimes the ancients counted only the days between 2 events and sometimes they counted the day they're counting from and to, 2 more days. That would explain the difference between Luke's 8 and the other two's 6, but that's not could enough for me, you, or St. Ambrose.
St. Ambrose says 8 is Luke's way of pointing us to the resurrection of Jesus that will happen on the 8th day (Ancient Christian Commentary, III, 159). I say jump to Luke 24. Luke alone tells you the women rested on the Sabbath. Then he points out on the first day of the week after the Sabbath they went to the tomb. The Sabbath was the 7th day of the week. Luke is highlighting that Easter happened on the 8th day. St. Ambrose says Luke's Transfiguration account points to the resurrection; I say it highlights Easter, and you say Hallelujah! You go down into the valley of ashes today not to stay there but to come out the other side amid alleluias.
In the usually accepted version of Cohen's song the last verse is, "And even though/ It all went wrong/ I'll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah." Even in his heartbreak there is hallelujah. Even in the sin and death that is our ashes the Lord of Song, for the sake of the God/Man Jesus, imparts to our tongues hallelujahs. Though we choose to bury them for Lent, still they echo from the Mount of Transfiguration to ring if not in our ears than in our hearts. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (20100214); Luke 9: 28-36