A Broken Hallelujah

We marched in triumphal procession this morning.  It was glorious; it was grand.  Palm branches waving, brass playing, red vestments blazing.  “Hallelujah!” we sang and cheered.  “Hallelujah! Hosanna in the highest, for the Lord passes by, and we are his servants.”

This procession was so different from the one we experienced five weeks ago on the first Sunday of Lent.  Then, we processed to the Great Litany.  The mood was somber, and the ash still flaked from our foreheads.  Our mortality was on our minds then, but not this morning.  This morning we sang “All glory, laud, and honor,” which includes the words: “The company of angels are praising thee on high, and mortal men and all things created make reply.”

For the first fifteen minutes of the Palm Sunday liturgy, we are lifted into the sublime realm of angels, into the heights of love, into the grip of…passion.

Palm Sunday Triumphal Procession

“Our love for Jesus twists and turns on itself so quickly in the liturgy today—our hallelujahs turn murderous with such speed—that the whiplash threatens to break us, as it will break Jesus five days hence.”

That’s the key word today: Passion.  Because while the hallelujahs still ring in our ears, they are displaced by our collective cry, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You see, this is not only Palm Sunday; it is Passion Sunday.  I once preached a sermon on this day entitled “Whiplash.”  That’s what today feels like.  Our love for Jesus twists and turns on itself so quickly in the liturgy today—our hallelujahs turn murderous with such speed—that the whiplash threatens to break us, as it will break Jesus five days hence.

There is a nascent movement in the Episcopal Church away from combining Palm and Passion Sundays.  For some, the whiplash is too much.  Let the party be the party, the celebration the celebration.  Let love be love.

But in the world outside these doors, that’s not how we experience love, is it?  Surely, when we are lucky, love begins with something like waving palms and hallelujahs.  In the throes of love we, like the crowd before Jesus, will lay our coats over puddles to keep our beloved from muddying her feet.  Our loves for spouses, for partners, for children, for dear friends are marked, each in their own way, by adoration, by devotion, by passion.

Passion definition

Webster defines passion as “a strong feeling that causes [one] to act in a dangerous way.”  And so, there is a crucial lesson conveyed in the liturgy today, one we would do well to note and learn for our relationships in this world: The same power, the same potency, the same passion with which one day we gaze into the eyes of those we most love and say, “Blessed be!” can and often does, sooner or later, glare into those same eyes and seethe, “Crucify him” or “Crucify her.”

Our relationships falter.  We hurt those we cherish.  We circle the wagons and leave our beloved on the outside.  We betray.  Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” has gained such popularity in recent years because it captures this truth as only music can.  Cohen writes:

Maybe there’s a God above,

But all I’ve ever learned from love

Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.

It’s not a cry that you hear at night;

It’s not someone who’s seen the light;

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

I became an Episcopalian twenty-five years ago in part because I love the Episcopal Church’s undaunted focus on love.  A quarter century later, I still believe this to be of central importance to our role as Episcopalians in the broader religious landscape.  After all, God is love, as St. John tells us[i].

But we also must name and admit, with steely resolve and wide-open eyes, that our world is marked by human passion, by that broken love, that broken hallelujah by which we too often crucify those we most cherish.  And this week, beginning on this Sunday of the Passion, we will crucify even the God who is love.  And our joy turns to despair.  What, then, are we to do?

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

Let me tell you a story.  When I first arrived at the Cathedral, I was chagrined at the placement of our columbarium.  Tucked into the long passageway between Golding Chapel and Reynolds Hall, it seemed so exposed to the grit, grime and noise of the street.  How could such a place be reverent?

The first time I officiated at a committal service in the columbarium was particularly sorrowful.  The death had been sudden and unexpected.  But as we read the liturgy, the children of our Cathedral school were at recess on our playground at the other end of the passageway, just on the other side of the gate.  As we stood at the niche, we heard the joy and laughter of children.  Their voices carried on the air, and they provided wisps of hope in that shadowed space.  From the street end of the passageway, we couldn’t hear the children.  Only by entering the columbarium—only by processing into that space and pausing to mark death—could we receive the children’s joy.  I have loved our columbarium every since.

"Only by entering the columbarium—only by processing into that space and pausing to mark death—could we receive the children’s joy."

“Only by entering the columbarium—only by processing into that space and pausing to mark death—could we receive the children’s joy.”

Holy Week, which begins today, is like that long corridor of our columbarium.  Our Palm Sunday procession, with its dangerous and oscillating passion, has taken us as far as the street end of the corridor.  Ahead of us we see shadows; and we know that our march of hosannas and hallelujahs is about to pass through pain and darkness and death.  As Leonard Cohen’s song crescendos, “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”  We owe it to ourselves this week to abide here.  Indeed, we must abide in this space.   Our redemption depends upon our willingness to admit our human condition; to admit that we good people are also those who sometimes say, to our loved ones and to our God, “Crucify him;” and to admit that we cannot remedy this on our own.

But God will not leave us here anymore than God left Jesus in the tomb.  If we listen closely—if we tune our ears and our hearts toward the other end of this passage—we can detect a different sound, a different voice, a different light, wisps of the joy and hope that await us one week from today.  The new life of Easter is coming, which will resurrect our broken hallelujahs into new song.  God will show us, once again, that his love knows no limits.  Even when we seek to kill God, we’ll discover that the power of God’s love is greater than death’s hold.  God will show us that his passion, too, is dangerous, but its danger is that it will not give us up.  It will pursue us through the darkness all the way to the light on the other side, so that our love is redeemed and our hallelujahs ring like the joy and laughter of children.

[i] 1 John 4:8

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