In some Christian denominations, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday features a special, liturgical worship piece called “a farewell to alleluia.” This usually involves a special hymn that repeats the word “alleluia” throughout its stanzas, a reminder to the congregation that this word will not be sung again until Easter morning. I have always found this a moving reminder that this side of eternity, our God understands what it means to say goodbye.
In this fallen world, every parting reminds us that things are not yet as they should be. We can say that death is a natural part of the circle of life. We can flood our radios with breakup songs about shattered relationships. We can normalize everything from empty nest syndrome to miscarriages, long-distance moves to estrangements, but in the dead of another too-silent night, our best arguments seem to crumble. If this is the way life is meant to be, how can we endure it?
It is easy to think that an alleluia-less Lent is designed to focus us solely on our sin. Perhaps our reluctance to sing joyfully stems out of our broken spirits. Perhaps, we think, the season of Lent is a time when we can indulge in the severest self-denial. We are confronted with the utter terror of sin, evil so great that only the blood of God’s Son could destroy it. Maybe we picture a disappointed, burdened Jesus, mournfully staring at us as we struggle with sin day after day. Maybe if we give up enough things during this period of meditation and prayer, we will have persevered and won the right to praise the Lord with full-throated joy.
While it is true that recognizing the depravity of our hearts is a vital, daily occurrence for the Christian, there is no scriptural mandate that one must refrain from singing that word for forty days out of the year. It falls into the area theologians term adiaphora—that which is neither commanded or forbidden, things which either may be observed or not according to an individual’s conscience. Neither the one who sings nor the one who refrains are sinning (Col. 2:16), which prompts the question, why, when we need it so desperately, do we refrain from singing joyfully? Why, amid the death, terror, and uncertainty do we turn aside from voicing our exuberant hope? Are we spiritual masochists, pathetically craving the beat-down of judgment instead of embracing the freedom we have in Christ?
There is no law mandating that we temporarily excommunicate alleluias from our worship. But for those who choose to say a temporary goodbye to joyful praise, the focus is not so much on what we refrain from doing, as it is on what we freely receive.
So why would we “bury” our alleluias during the season of Lent, as my church bulletin suggested? Why don’t we use the term that literally means “praise YAHWEH,” the all-merciful covenant God who has claimed us as His own?
We are travelers on this earth. Every misty road and agonizing moment of indecision reminds us that life is not about becoming—or finding—perfection. Life is the One who is perfect, the Way we could never have discovered on our own. There is nothing that we can do or not do to change the way God loves us. We can reject His love, certainly; we can push Him aside, spit on Him, and remove Him from our vocabulary. But our sin does not change who God is. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), not just those whose sin is severe enough to warrant public scrutiny. Each and every one of us killed God. Christ Jesus became my sin, your sin, in order to receive the wrath of God against every thought, word, and deed that stands in contrast to His perfection. Our word “goodbye” is a contraction of the historical phrase “God be with you,” and this is what we see on the cross. At the cross, God the Father said “goodbye”—He turned His face away from the Son, utterly forsaking Him (Matt. 27:46), so that our sins would die in agony and be buried forever. Immanuel (“God with Us”) was slain so that the Triune God could be with us, that the relationship between the Father and us could be restored (Eph. 2:13-16).
Lent is a time when the Church—all individuals who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb the world over—leans into the depth of God’s love. While we were still sinners, unable to proclaim “Jesus is LORD” (1 Cor. 12:3), Christ died for us. Not because we were praising Him, but so that we might know Him as He is: not on our terms, but in His truth (Ps/ 86:11). We who were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:5) sing Alleluia, not in order to make ourselves alive, but because we have already been given life. Lent is a breathless, relentless focus on our complete inability to merit God’s favor or earn even a sliver of His love. Our focus turns to the One who breathed into Adam the breath of life (Gen. 2:7) and ordains praise from the lips of His children (Ps. 51:15). Those who do not sing “alleluia” during the days leading up to Easter are motivated by love—not their love for Christ, but His love for them. In the same way, those who sing “alleluia” are by no means less spiritual, less sincere, or less focused. In either case, the focus is not on the one who is or is not singing, but on the One who continues to rejoice over us with His never-ending song of salvation (Zeph. 3:17).
Because of Christ, sinner-saints proclaim that no farewell, no heartbreak, no parting can be compared with the glory that is coming to us through Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 4:17). Because of the Holy Spirit who works faith in us, we cling not to earthly mirages of security, desperate to avoid all farewells, but to the empty cross and the empty tomb. Because of the Father’s goodbye on Calvary, because of the glorious, bodily resurrection of the slain Lamb on the third day, whether we sing or do not sing, we can confidently proclaim that God is with us. Praise the LORD.