Shouting Alleluia (even in Lent)
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, distributed his Easter message to his Diocese yesterday in which he wrote of how beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday with Anglicans in the Sudan was so different from his usual Lenten practice. Williams writes,
Well, this year I started Lent in Sudan. Ash Wednesday found me in temperatures of 40-odd sharing in food distribution in a school and a refugee camp in Malakal and celebrating Holy Communion in a large and ultra-humid tent. Pretty well everything, every aspect of that environment, seemed set to remind us that we still lived in a world where the cross was the immediate reality and resurrection hope was definitely a thing of the future. Hunger, desperate poverty, the traces of unspeakable trauma and violence, and the present reality of the same unspeakable brutality not too far away in Darfur – this, surely, was a world untouched by Easter.The full text of the Easter message is online here.
But one thing you quickly discover at worship in the Sudan is that there is no occasion free from alleluias. That Ash Wednesday service echoed with the joyful shouting of ‘Alleluia’ – from the children and the women especially as we came in, from every speaker who got near the microphone during the service, in hymns and songs throughout. My liturgical conscience had to resign and slink away. Lent it might be, but this was not an Easter-free zone.
Which is quite a good counterbalance to where I started. Yes, we need to be reminded by abstinence and restraint that the world is still a Good Friday sort of place, shadowed by abandonment, terror, pain. But what if you don’t really need reminding? What if, like the Sudanese believers, you have lived so long with abandonment and terror and pain that you can never forget or ignore it? These were people whose whole life was a particularly awful and crushing ‘Lent’.
Yet they could not stop saying, singing, shouting, ‘Alleluia’. If they lived in a long-term Lent, they also lived in an unceasing awareness of Easter. They had come through the horrors of war and oppression with the confidence intact that God was always there on the far side or in the depths of what they were enduring. If everyone else forgot them, God would not and could not. Because he was alive, they could live too – to echo the words of Jesus in John’s gospel.
The mystery of Christian faith is really something we can’t ever put into words because it is about so many things that are all true all at once, but we can only talk about them one at a time. Advent and Christmas and Good Friday and Easter and Pentecost, Baptism and Communion and birth and death are all packed up together, inseparably. But whether in our words or in the course of the Christian year, we usually have to pull them apart and take them in some kind of series. And it’s good that we do, since we have to give ourselves a chance to think things through carefully and to experience the time it takes to get from old to new, from death to life.
But once in a while something happens that pushes it all together again, confusingly and wonderfully, telling us that Advent is already, eternally, overtaken by Christmas, Lent by Easter, death by life. God is always there ahead of us, his future already part of the present.
This evening, we will read and reflect on scripture using the ancient service of Tenebrae at 6 p.m. For those who have reserved a seat, the Passover Seder is at 7 p.m.