We “bury” or “lock up” our alleluias on Ash Wednesday in preparation for Lent. This is not my idea, but an ancient practice centered around prayer and discipline, fasting from ecstasy or ecstatic praise until Easter.
At the church I serve, our plan is to decorate the letters of alleluia and hang them up (and say and sing some alleluias) on Easter Sunday. In a consumer world of right now, I thought this would be a purposeful, challenging practice for us this year as a family of faith. My challenge, as the pastor, will be to keep the worship contemplative, somber and focused, without it becoming depressing and dark. Even though it takes work, it does seem possible to abstain from joyful praise while remaining content and motivated. I think we see this posture as Jesus moves towards the cross. He certainly still loves, still hopes, still teaches and preaches the gospel, but there is a sober manner in which he journeys to Jerusalem unto death.
We have a congregation of younger children, so I am already thinking and planning on how I can explain our burying and locking up our alleluias. I have talked to them about the concept of delayed gratification before during Advent — the waiting and preparation that comes before the big celebration. Even in our “right here, right now” culture, there are still cycles and schedules that refuse to be rushed. Babies take nine months, give or take, regardless of how ready or not we are. Graduation and degrees only come to those who put in the work and time needed. Perhaps even more frustrating, sometimes we have to wait a period of time before we can re-take an exam. There is still such a thing as wedding planning for many. And plants take time to grow and flourish; to every young child’s dismay, a seed planted in the soil does not immediately turn into anything (especially in Wisconsin, my home state). Perhaps some of these parallels will have meaning for what it means to lock up our alleluia for Lent.
Like Advent, my favorite thing about Lent is the space — the six weeks to pray, to focus, to dedicate ourselves toward growing closer to God and to be reminded of who Jesus was and is and is to come. I wish I spent more than six weeks there, but it is helpful to have a season to recall the person and the God who died in our place. Hopefully the space of Lent means more space for us to become better disciples of Jesus Christ.
I wonder if locking up our alleluias for Lent will give us permission as a congregation to mourn, to grieve and to be less than happy. So often people come to church and feel the pressure to paste a smile on their face and sing joyously when their soul is hurting. I am hopeful that locking up the alleluias will remind all of us that it is okay to not be okay. It is okay to struggle, and to have bad days, weeks and months. Christians are not always smiling, not always laughing, not always hopeful and not always hugging. Christians frown, Christians cry, Christians despair and Christians need to sit by themselves and put their heads down and cross their arms across their chests from time to time. I’m not hoping to create a “misery loves company” environment for six weeks, but I am hopeful that this Lent might remind us that part of being a family of faith is permission to be ourselves — not to act like we are one way when we are not.
Finally, tradition suggests we hide the alleluias, bury them so to speak, out of sight. But… I just might create a new tradition for us as we try this for the very first time. I think we might keep that box (locked of course) in plain sight. Why? Because, even though we will be journeying through Lent – a time of reflection and penitence – we are not going to stay there. We are on our way to Resurrection, to Easter morning when the Son will rise and hopefully the sun will rise and we will celebrate once again the victory of Jesus Christ. Though we lock those alleluias away, I don’t want us to forget. I want this Lent to be a time of anticipation for us of what is to come. And, as every kid waiting on candy knows, delayed gratification is that much sweeter when we can see what is to come.
So perhaps the alleluias will sit under the communion table, where the box can be seen, but untouched. And so it may represent the hope that is to come. And so we will be reminded that at the end of a season of contemplative, somber, and focused worship, we will be the ones shouting and singing alleluia once more.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.