Alleluias on Good Friday
March 25, 2016
This past week we mourned a life cut short in its prime-- a death that was too soon. Our emotions were raw, as we “celebrated” a life snuffed out in its prime. And given all those various ways we felt, the liturgy urges us to find comfort in the Commendation of the departed into the hands of God. There’s the part of the service when that we aver, “Yet, even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
What an interesting mixture of emotion sits in that one statement, “even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Certainly those Alleluias are rendered in a very minor key at any funeral. But there they are, anyway.
We can make these graveside Alleluias only because of the fact that Christ has gone there before us, and has shown us the way. And he lives still. And when we die, we die NOT into nothingness. We die into God. Alleluia.
It’s interesting that in the readings for Good Friday that lead up to John’s sweeping account of the Passion we see this very same mixture of dreadful and hopeful. Look at our first reading—the one from Isaiah [52:13-53:12]. This one in Christian tradition has almost universally been seen as a description of the saving work of the Christ, through his suffering and death: by his stripes we are healed. It spawned a raft of theologies of atonement through suffering—propitiation of an angry God through the shedding of the blood on behalf of the guilty.
But—and this is a quite significant word—BUT the truth of the matter is that Isaiah wrote a good 600 or 700 years prior to the birth of Christ. The Suffering Servant is thought by most academics who study the Old Testament to be the collective people of God—the chosen ones, Israel.
And the prophet is saying that by their suffering—the suffering of the people Israel—they will bring salvation to the world.
Most of this reading is stark and hard to take. But look how it begins—look at that very first verse: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” [52:13] Of course some of the early churchmen saw this as a prediction of Christ on the cross. Lifted high and exalted and in control till the last moment—that’s how John presents Jesus in the Passion account we just read. Other churchmen saw this as a prediction of the exaltation to glory of Jesus in his resurrection and again at his ascension.
But Old Testament scholars see this as the fate of the people Israel. One day they will be lifted up, exalted to glory, leading the nations to the knowledge of God.
These various echoes and interpretations are fascinating, aren’t they?
But let’s return to this mixture of moods in another of this evening’s readings: Psalm 22. We recite this psalm at the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday—we said it just last night. And we repeat it on Good Friday.
It’s not too hard to figure out why it’s used in Holy Week. It starts with that terrible cry of dereliction that Jesus prayed from the cross in the passion accounts of Mark and Matthew. It helps us remember that Jesus so fully experienced being human that even HE felt abandoned by his own essence—his Father.
The psalm goes on through various faces of depression and suffering—and hence is quite appropriate for the Christ, tortured and dying on a Roman cross. Verse 11: “Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” It’s a prayer of desperation—when all your usual channels of help are gone. / Turn to God. / Verse 18: “Be not far away, O Lord; you are my strength; hasten to help me.”
Then, however, our psalm turns upward in its mood. We see by verse 21 that the psalmist is promising God glory in the assembly in return for salvation from enemies. He breaks into full praise of God who answers the cries of the oppressed. And he ends the psalm with a promise for eternity: “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.” [Psalm 22:29-30]
The mood turns / because of the hope we carry / that even in the worst of times and circumstances, there will be a way out, at the hand of our loving God. God redeems—or makes good—all the suffering and the grief we will ever know.
This is the message we MUST keep in mind on Good Friday in order not to go down to the grave with Jesus and stay there indefinitely. There is death waiting for us, yes. But there is also life eternal, just beyond the dying.
Jesus is our pattern and our loving guide through it all. He is the Way, and he knows the way, because he’s already gone there. He promises to be with us when it’s our time to make that journey.
And that’s why even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Amen.