The Holy and the Broken Hallelujah

Over the forty days of Lent, many Christian churches refrain from saying “alleluia.” The word, along with its variant “halleluja,” is the transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “Praise Yahweh” (or simply “Praise God”).   “Alleluia” and “hallelujah” imagine a worshiper erupting in joyful praise.  The more penitential character of Lent can make such celebratory outbursts seem out of place.  So dating back to the 5th century, a tradition developed of withholding the word for Lent.  Churches enacted rituals of bidding the “alleluia” farewell.  Some would take a banner with the word “alleluia” on it and bury it in the ground just before Ash Wednesday.  Then, when Easter Sunday arrived, they would bring the banner back into the sanctuary to congregational shouts of “alleluia!”

This year, even when Easter arrives, shouts of “alleluia” may feel strange to the tongue.  A war in Ukraine will likely still be raging as Easter Sunday arrives April 17th, 2022.  Some 10 million people will have been displaced by the conflict.  And the threat of escalation will still be present.  COVID-19 will still be with us, adding thousands weekly to the virus’s death toll.  Can we truly sing “alleluia” this Easter?   Or is the word best kept buried in the ground?

The singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen famously described the term hallelujah/alleluia with two seemingly incongruous words: “holy” and “broken.”  In his 1984 album Various Positions, Cohen sings: “There’s a blaze of light in everyword.  It doesn’t matter which you heard: the holy or the broken hallelujah.”

Can “halleluia” evoke holiness and brokenness simultaneously?   Certainly, the book of Psalms holds both themes amid its 24 proclamations of “halleluia.”  42 of the Psalms are laments, each of which evokes the brokenness of the human condition.  Yet there are more than 50 references to holiness in the Psalms as well.  We have broken cries, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).  And we have ascription of God’s holiness in hard times, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praise of Israel” (Psalm 22:3).   The fallenness of our world – along with the holiness of a God determined to love and transform it – are both intermingled in biblical praise.

When Easter arrives in 2022, I hope we will sing “alleluia” and “hallelujah” louder than ever – even in days of war and pandemic.   For on Easter, we recall that with Christ, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  We celebrate that God sent the very stuff of heaven to dwell with us in Christ and sustain us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In our Savior’s resurrection, we saw how even death could not defeat God’s holiness at work in our world.  It may be a broken “halluluja” on our lips.  But by God’s power, it can be a holy “halleluja” as well.

Pastor Matt