Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least a powerful inclination to take someone or something for granted. I admit that I don’t give thanks every time clean hot and cold water flows from my taps each day, marvellous though this is. It is no less the case with God and his grace. There may be times when the grace of God seems like the most precious thing on earth to us. At other times we may scarcely give it a second thought. We take for granted the wonder of the baptismal waters we swim in.
Perhaps this is why it can be so fruitful to inhabit the liturgical year. Focussing on different episodes of the story of our faith, in rotation, gives us a sense of the sweep of God's purpose down the millennia, as well as detailed encounters with the characters and events inhabiting our scriptures. Every year our experience is different because every year we are different.
Hallelujah is a great example of this. It is one of those words which is the same in every language: originally a melding of two Hebrew words “hallel” – “to praise”, and the first part of “Yahweh”– a name for God. In the Hebrew scriptures Hallelujah (Alleluia, if translated from the Greek instead of the Latin) has a sense of invitation to it – “Let us praise God together!” Why do we want to praise God? Because he loves us!
In the Christian New Testament Hallelujah has more of a sense of relief and delight – like an ecstatic "Yoohoo!" Why do we express our delight? Because the one who has embodied God's grace to us is alive after all!
During Lent, many Christians give up the liturgical use of the word Hallelujah as part of their Lenten fast. The plan is that we practise – for the next 40 days at least – not taking God’s grace for granted.
In the same way, on Good Friday and Holy Saturday we are invited to imaginatively inhabit a world in which God is dead. Safe in the knowledge that the victory has already been won on our behalf, we are free to explore with fear and trembling what kind of sad and terrifying universe it would be if at its centre there did not dwell the God who created us and loves us with a love stronger than death. We remember those who do not share our hope, and grieve on their behalf. We resolve to treasure more deeply our belovedness, for the sake of those who do not yet believe that they are loved.
Easter arrives. The Lord is risen! We kick up our heels like carefree new lambs and live in the grace and bounty and abundance that Jesus has won for us. Hallelujah!
And yet for all this, Hallelujah is not a trite word. There are accounts of “the martyr’s sign”: Christian martyrs being burnt at the stake mouthing the word Hallelujah before being overcome by smoke and flames, to encourage their watching brothers and sisters that God is yet sustaining them.
In the Greek Orthodox funeral liturgy, Alleluia is repeated over and over, interspersed with the unsentimental and unvarnished details of the difficult process of dying: “Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where then is the glory of this world? There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm: ‘Alleluia.’”
Leonard Cohen’s famous song echoes this spiritual nakedness and vulnerability: ‘I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”. Hallelujah can be a word of dogged resistance, of faithfulness in the face of adversity.
As we painstakingly navigate our way out of all that has befallen our world over the past year, we cannot tell what we will be left with. Yet, as fifth-century theologian Prosper of Aquitaine asked: “Why should lasting values tremble if transient things fall?” As people of faith, it is always open to us to offer our loving God an authentic Hallelujah.