A time to wait

Recently I had a conversation with a professional church musician about Holy Week. The musician, who has decades of experience, was naming some pieces of music that capture the mood of Holy Week. One of the named pieces of music is based on an ancient text and tune. It has a verse that concludes with multiple repetitions of “Alleluia!” I commented that that verse is clearly an Easter verse and should be reserved for Easter, not sung during Holy Week. The musician conceded that in a very strict congregation, it might be noticed that the word Alleluia was used prematurely, most churches would not notice the repetition of the word and the verse would be appropriate for Holy Week. I didn’t think much about the conversation at the time. It had no direct bearing on our Holy Week plans and simple represented a difference in nuance.

I like periods of anticipation and waiting. I don’t want to rush to Easter without having the full experience of Holy Week. But I also acknowledge that my attitude, and my own spiritual practices are a bit counter-cultural. Go into any grocery store during Holy Week and you will find easter candy and eggs and baskets and bunnies and chicks and any number of other Easter supplies. We don’t really celebrate the days of loss and grief. There isn’t a marketing angle to Holy Week. Many people see Easter and the entire holiday at this time of year without giving much thought to Holy Week.

As I have been driving around our community running errands this week, I have occasionally listened to South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Several times I’ve heard station promotion announcements about their plan to play a recording of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presenting Handel’ Messiah this morning. It is good Friday and sometime between now an noon the glorious and triumphant strains of the Hallelujah Chorus will be ringing from radios across our state. I think that probably most of the fans of South Dakota Public Broadcasting and the staff of the radio station feel that this is completely appropriate. Good Friday is, in their minds, a part of the Easter Vacation and a powerful piece of religious music is just right for Good Friday.

For the record I won’t be listening. And if I had time, which I don’t, I wouldn’t have my radio tuned in at that time to that channel. I’m not ready for the Hallelujah Chorus. Not today. Not yet. Today is a day of keeping vigil, of prayer, of silence, of experiencing grief.

Grief isn’t a popular thing in our society. We are continually trying to run away from a sense of grief. We want to have celebration of life ceremonies in place of funerals. We want to avoid sorrow and sadness and the pain of loss. Sometimes, however, it just makes sense to sit with the sadness.

Handel’s best-known work probably wasn’t his favorite. One study of the work that I read asserted that Handel wasn’t pleased with the oratorio. The words for the pieces in the work weren’t chosen by Handel, but rather by Charles Jennens. Jennens was known as an anti-deist who was interested in primitive Christianity. He collected the words that Handel set to music from the King James version of the Bible, and the Coverdale Psalter. The Coverdale Psalter was the collection of psalms translated into English and set in musical rhythms for use in worship in connection with the Book of Common Prayer at the time. I’m sure that it can’t be easy to write music to go with words that have already been chosen, but I don’t know the reasons why Handel wasn’t happy with the oratorio.

It is hard to come up with a theological argument against using words that come directly from the Bible, other than to note which passages where taken out of context and which were left out from the selections of the work. Personally, I have no particular objection to the choice of words. But not every word and not every song is appropriate for every day of one’s life.

It is an ancient tradition for Christians to avoid the use of the word Alleluia during the season of Lent. Our liturgies and responses are carefully selected to not include that particular word. In some congregations a special show is made of “locking up” the alleluias on Ash Wednesday and releasing them at the great vigil of Easter. We’re not that formal in our congregation, but I personally try not to write or include in our worship songs or prayers with the word during Lent.

I hear, from time to time, complaints about the somber music I choose and the hymns in minor keys that I associate with the season. People come to church to have their spirits lifted and some find the waiting and patience of the season be less than they expect of the church.

Today is one of the “marathon” days for me. I’ll be serving hot cross buns at Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center at 6:15 this morning. I’ll be in my office at the church before 8 am. We have services at 11 and 12. Then there is set up and preparation for the Great Vigil, which includes returning to the sanctuary some items that were removed during the stripping of the altar in the liturgy of the passion. In the early evening I will sit with a family for the viewing of the body of their teenage son who died tragically and whose funeral is tomorrow morning. For that family and for the friends of the teen, Good Friday will always be a day of somber remembrance and probably not a day to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. It is unlikely that I will ever forget their sorrow and sense of loss. It becomes another story in my collection of experiences that teach that understanding of resurrection comes only after having the courage to face death directly. Easter morning will come, but not yet.

Today we keep vigil and we wait.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!