Before the sermon the congregation has been supplied with paper and crayons and many copies ofthe individual letters of Alleluia. They have been invited to color and draw and fill in the sheets and at the end of the service carry them to the columbarium niche where they shall be ‘buried’.
The banner hung across the parish hall stage. Two days a week, 30 some 1st and 2nd graders, and St. Peter’s parish hall for tutoring. The first Tuesday of Lent my student, Walter, looked up at the banner. He asked ‘why is it covered up?’ ‘Well,’ I replied. It says Alleluia and this is the time of year When we hold on to the word, and we don’t say it again till Easter.’ ‘Alleluia?’ he queried. ‘I thought that started with an H.’ I could not have been more proud.30 some college students gathered in the
Hallelujah. Alleluia. Two spellings. One word that says so much more than it says. It is enlightenment and joyful peace. Alleluia. It is deeper and brighter and bolder, lives changed, restored, renewed. Alleluia. It is moment beyond which everyday descriptions can touch. Alleluia is a word for wordlessness. It is a divine word like forever or always. A phoneme placeholder for those moments of mystery that are both terrifying and fascinating. Alleluia.
Elijah looms large in the prophets hall of fame. And this reading today is his biggest hit. If you know nothing else about Elijah, if you know nothing else about any other Hebrew prophet, you might just know that there is a story involving Elijah and chariots and fire and flying. No other figure of the Hebrew scriptures has an afterlife. Nobody else in the Hebrew scriptures really has an afterlife at all. The concept of the cosmos doesn't involve what happens next. In most of the Hebrew texts and certainly all of the oldest material, the focus is all about this life, not the mystery beyond it. No one else doesn’t die, and certainly no one else returns from the great beyond. Yet, there he is, in the last words of the Hebrew canon. Elijah will return and announce the ‘day of the Lord’.
All this unusualness, fire and whatnot, it may overshadow the main point of the text. Which is to transfer the prophetic role from one generation to another. The focus of the text isn’t Elijah. It is Elisha and his authority to proclaim God’s word for the next generation. The images of a staff and waters parting, of crossing into the land where Moses died, it reaches back into ages past and hands this authority into the future. The word of God will have a voice in every generation. All the wonder and strangeness, it is intense symbolic narrative that draws from Hebrew history and pushes us into that space that words cannot quite express. Alleluia.
These wordlessness moments in our readings today, are about what God does in us when we are close to him. The wonders of fire and glowing faces are imagination expanders, holy crayons drawing circles around what words cannot say. It is tempting to put all this glory and wonder in booths. Keep it safe and bounded, handy and accessible. Yet do you really want a miracle, a wonder that you can put in a box? Transfiguration refers to the illumination of an otherwise mundane phenomenon. It is revelation, it is inner truth expressed outwardly. Sometimes it has words with meaning, but often time it does not. Alleluia. The Lenten season we are about to enter into is in itself a transfiguration. An illumination of God’s will for the mundane in our lives. The mundane good we ignore and the mundane evil we enable.
So we bury the word Alleluia. Or not so much bury, as we place it in a tomb, of sorts. We bury this mysterious wordlessness word that celebrates life giving change. We turn to the mundane. The corrupt and the broken. We go where Jesus lives and breathes and dies by the hand of mundane selfishness. We bury the Alleluia as an outward and visible sign that Lent is the time when we examine the ways in which we let the mundane overrule the Alleluia.
Theology and scripture and generations of artists have not been able to supply the box for these otherworldly convicting moments. Alleluia. This wordlessness is in its own way a blessing. It keeps us from worshiping the signs of God’s presence rather than the God whose reign they highlight. This wordlessness leaves the message of God’s holiness to human lives, our lives. It places the ongoing transformation of God’s people into the context of human community, this community, this generation.
This wordless brilliance that is Jesus Christ, it doesn’t color inside the lines, and it should shine through you and me. The real wonders of the prophets, the miracles of Jesus, the disciples and his apostles, which by the way includes you and me, the real wonders are always concerned with the mundane: food, safety, debted-ness, literacy, sickness, discrimination and death. It is hundreds of bowls of soup and bushels of toast served with love, week in and week out. Alleluia. It is 30 some college students, and 30 some children, and books and crayons and a healthy snack in a parish hall. Alleluia. Wonders and transfiguration, these are mysteries that point beyond themselves.
The word is going to get buried. Yet the wonder and fascination and new life of God still lives. So I ask you, this Lent, how can you be a wordless act of Alleluia?
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
Tranfiguration, Year B RCL
Sorry for no recording. Couldn't decide until the last moment whether this would come from the aisle or the pulpit. So I didn't have my phone handy to record with.