More Than About Forgiveness: Mourning, Suffering, and Why I Want My Lent With Alleluias
Here’s the two-fold gist of this Ash Wednesday/Gearing-Up-For-Lent blog:
The cross (and therefore Lent) is not just for sinners, but also for those sinned upon and those who suffer; and we shouldn’t give up our Alleluias during Lent.
To the first:
Lord knows that I am all about forgiveness, and I’m betting that you are all about it too.
We all know that we need it, and we all hope that nobody else but God knows why.
Now, Lutherans have a particular thing about the cross, because we see it as an historical event confirming that sin doesn’t win.
That bent is in large part because of Luther, and because of where Luther sat in history.
500 years ago, the primary, crushing crisis of the day was that of indulgences: people had to pay to receive them for the forgiveness of sins (“Just as the coin in the coffer rings, so a soul from purgatory springs,” à la Tetzel etc.).
That bothered Luther to no end, and it therefore initiated/ignited the Reformation.
The Gospel, which carries a message that grace is abundantly available to all, was threatened by a distortion that grace can be bought, and that it could be bought with no attached repentance.
Lutherans ran with that forgiveness-and-grace-for-all ball, and are still running with it 500 years down the field.
So, the good news is that for 500 years, people have been hearing that they are forgiven. That definitely counts as good news.
But a bad news consequence of that focus, a flip side of this constant, consistent message, is that people have been led to believe that forgiveness pretty much sums up the scoop of the gospel.
Forgiveness is sure part of the gospel.
But the cross speaks more than just the promise of forgiveness.
The cross also speaks of God’s solidarity with those who suffer.
The cross also speaks of God’s grasp of deep grief.
The cross also speaks of the apparent impossibility of living through pain, and loss, and torment.
I’m convinced that a focus only on forgiveness leaves those who mourn and who suffer wondering what that primal, primary event has to do with and for them.
But what would happen if we made it a Lenten practice to embrace the width and breadth of the cross, one which embraces not only those who have caused pain, but those who suffer it too?
What if we gave regular Lenten room for the lament not just of those who cry out for mercy because of guilt, but who cry out for mercy because of grief, of brokenhearedness, of broken relationships, of loneliness, of exhaustion, of fear, of isolation, of abuse, of oppression, of physical pain, of emotional hurt, of mental anguish?
On Ash Wednesday, we mark our mortality on our foreheads, of course.
The thing of it is, for many, death is not just something yawning from the future: it laces itself throughout every day.
And Good Friday isn’t just a once-a-year deal: it can range from a crisis lasting from a relatively small sliver of time to a 24 hour a day/7 day a week/52 weeks out of every interminable year deal.
How can we honor these experiences as legit Lenten stuff too, or, more precisely, as legit cross stuff too?
And, in a related qustion, to the second point:
What would happen if we considered breaking the taboo of not singing our Alleluias during Lent?
I never did get that rubric, I confess, though I did get an E for effort.
Seems to me that if we are people of the gospel, of the eu-angelion, of the good-news, that Easter informs every element of who we are, regardless of the liturgical season in which we sit.
In fact, it seems that Lent, namely the season in which we intentionally linger in the emotions and expressions of grief, mourning, guilt, and remorse, is perhaps the perfect time to be reminded of the essential news, the life-giving news that despair need not, will not, win.
Hope, in other words, is present, even when it seems that it is exactly the absent thing.
I’ve come to decide that without being laced through and through with Easter knowledge, Lent can feel like 40 days of masochistic liturgical Ouch.
Truth is, we can’t appreciate the import of the cross, regardless of whether it offers forgiveness and/or comfort and/or hope, if we don’t know Easter.
The cross left alone is an announcement that death does win.
The cross left alone calls life a wrap, and via suffering to boot.
The cross left alone gives no hope for Odes to Joy, and leaves us only with Odes to Lament.
That’s messed up.
A person needs at least an Ode to Hope to get us through our Lenten season(s).
What is Easter if not reason to sing an Ode to Hope, and does it not deserve an Alleluia, even (especially?) during Lent?
Mentor Walt Bouman spoke of how living the Christian life is like reading a mystery novel…starting with the last chapter first.
If you read the last chapter first, and then begin at the beginning, you enter into the story differently.
You realize what door to avoid (not to mention what person), and about what (and whom) you should care, and the degree to which you should be invested in either grief or joy.
His point (aside from being totally wrong about how he should read mystery lit) was that as Christians, we have read the last chapter first.
We know the end of the story.
We know that, as I like to say, death is real, but life is real-er.
We know that Good Friday is a Thing, and tears are a Thing, and disillusionment is a Thing, and loss is a Thing, and grief and regret and fear and fatigue and lament are all Things.
But we are different than the women at the tomb, and the disciples at the cross.
We are no different in our experiences of sorrow, of course, but we are different because we know that Jesus did not stay dead.
We read the last chapter.
That doesn’t negate that sometimes we still open the wrong doors, get attached to the wrong people, and suffer the death of others—and always, looming, our own.
But it does negate the purported final triumph of the loss, the anger, the emptiness, and the pain.
I think that rather than inviting people to ignore their negative experiences during this season, by framing Lent with Easter, and lacing it through with some Alleluias even through our tears, we welcome people to all the more to actually feel the negative experiences that make the Alleluias all the more poignant, and welcome, and necessary.
At the same time, I believe we also validate these events and emotions.
By naming that the cross isn’t just about forgiveness, but about a wide swath of grief and suffering, we acknowledge them, we honor them, and we stand with those who feel them.
You see, God did not intend people to suffer or to mourn, and certainly not alone.
A person wouldn’t know that, however, if a person didn’t know Easter.
Death would be God’s Last Word.
That cross on our Wednesday foreheads would be all we need, because that would be the final truth.
Good thing for us, though, the event of the cross is one bracket on some holy three days: Easter frames the other end of the Paschal Triduum.
We need both, for both are true.
Without the cross, Easter is superfluous.
And without Easter, the cross is victor.
And without Lent, we have no community to engage in two sacred acts: to acknowledge and wipe away our tears of grief, and of mourning, and (of course) of sinfulness; and to sing us into (and perhaps, for a spell, sing on our behalf) hopeful Alleluias nevertheless and in the in-between times of our lives.
Lent, in other words, is not just a season.
I see a rewrite for a large portion of my Ash Wednesday sermon. Thank you!… mostly.
Thanks…I think, and sorry…I think.
Thank you, thank you!!! As a life long Lutheran I have had a love/ hate Lenten experience. At a time of deep hurt and suffering I avoided Lutheran services during Lent because I felt the need to remember there is Easter and not to pretend to forget that I know ‘the rest of the story ‘. I have even prayed that I didn’t want to die and have my family experience my funeral during Lent because I was afraid they wouldn’t hear the “whole story” and be able to celebrate the real Good News. I have found I struggle more through lent when I sense the need to forgive others more than asking for forgiveness for myself. Yet, as I get older, I wonder, did those 40 days, that for many years I dreaded so much, lead me to better learn to forgive as I have been forgiven? (I’ll continue to say Alleluias for that!!!!!)
That is such a powerful post, to which I have nothing to add other than this: I am so grateful that you commented.
Peace to you!
1) That Time when one senses one has read something profound and important. Thank you Anna! 2) That part about sometimes sensing one is living in Lent 24/7/365. Living life with a special needs child can certainly seem that way. Just thinking aloud after engaging with your thought provoking post, Maybe what resonates with me in Lent is the possibility that other human beings might be sharing my daily reality (in a sense) for forty days. Does that make sense? I’ll need to ponder some more (the mark of a REALLY well written reflection!)
Matt, I am always so honored that you read my blogs, let alone respond to them, let alone respond to them like this.
Yes: you understand the Lenten Life of living as a parent of a child with special needs.
That can be lonely, of course, but I love the way that you drape Lent around that reality to feel the comfort of the community which knows perhaps different struggles, but struggles nonetheless, and therefore they—and we—share in it all.
Thank you, Anna, for this plunge into a deeper, broader, “real-er” understanding of the cross, and Lent. “Lent is life…” Yeah, there’s a pointed, sharp, blade of truth in that statement…. And it can cut, even deeply….. This is a really well-timed article for me as a parish pastor…..
That the Cross is not just about forgiveness of those who have offended, but also speaks to God’s coming for those who suffer (often) at the hands of those who need forgiveness, is important truth. The need to lift this up, these laments, speaks to me very powerfully. I think it will also speak to our people. Death is not the last word! If it is, we might as well pack up and go spend our time doing something else. I have heard that each Sunday of Lent is to be a “little Easter” celebration. This would tie in with your idea. Yet, we still are supposed to avoid those alleluias — kind of a paradox. And, while I’ve been mostly a liturgical hard-liner when it comes to Alleluias during Lent (even once or twice having the children hide the or ALLELUIA at the start of Lent, only to find it again on Easter) I can understand your feeling for and thinking about the need for Alleluias interspersed. I do relish those Alleluias on Easter, and all the days after Easter, when we can shout out the ‘Alleuluias’ after the “Alleluia-fast” of Lent.
So, again, thank you for this….
Funny, my father and I were -just- talking about that history of busting out the Alleluias today!
There is something about that anticipatory joy, no doubt about it. I have it associated with the trumpets and big kettle drums and released balloons in the sanctuary of my childhood church.
But there has to be a way of still unfurling the expectation, and yet anticipating its fullness even by way of muted alleluias?
I also know about that tradition of hiding the alleluias. I get it, but, gotta tell you, have never liked it, mostly because I don’t imagine that in ‘real life’ we would tell anyone ever to hide the alleluia.
I’d like to encourage a conversation about how to do a liturgical both/and here: recognizing the abundant joy of full-on Easter, but also that that Easter speaks perhaps precisely most of all when we feel as if those Alleluias are, in fact, hidden.
That ‘little Easter’ tradition of which you speak is one way of doing just that, I think!
This is so very very good. As a Lutheran but as an African American I have never bought the no Alleluias during Lent. The story of my people was that we learned how to sing Glory even in the midst of the cruel enigma of slavery. I understand the Lament but I also understand the power of hope.
Rev. Wheeler, I couldn’t begin to tell you how honored I am by your comment.
Once a person suffers, a person knows something about holy lament.
A person knows that pain deserves its time.
A person knows that to rush to Easter is the stuff of saccharine.
But a person -also- knows that if you have no hope, you let death win again; first, by way of the cause of your suffering, and second, for taking away hope to boot.
It first clicked for me studying the theology of the cross for my dissertation. Moltmann helped me mounds here: The theology of the cross has to mean something different, something more, after Auschwitz.
Auschwitz, of course, stands by itself, and is a stand-in for any and all tormented, holy suffering, such as the likes of which you write.
But then an accident killed my husband and gave my son a TBI.
Suddenly I got it not just by way of books, but by way of life.
Not only did life become different for me, but so did the theology of the cross, and so did Lent.
In fact, I have often said that Holy Saturday is the most honest day of the Church, for you have one foot in Good Friday, and the other in Easter.
And how both/and-y, how already-not-yet-y, aka how -Lutheran- can you get?
I am grateful that the piece resonated for you out of your own experience and history of suffering.
Peace be with you in that midst, and, dang it, Alleluia!
this is the first time, anywhere, ever, I have read or heard of someone who gets it. I started going to a church that followed the church year and with anticipation attended my first Ash Wednesday Service. all I remember is darkness, overwhelming grief and anger as I was reminded of my mortality…as If I hadn’t lived it. The fall season, for me, is marked by death anniversaries and birthdays of my little brother and little sister’s death when I was 11 and 12, my remaining brother’s death in 2005 and then my mom and my dad. The last thing I needed was to be reminded of that I was “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I have never attended another one. I briefly thought about it this year, but just could not. I have not lost my faith, although I have questioned a lot. I still believe in death and resurrection and for the life of me, don’t’ get the burying the alleluia and finding it again on Easter. I need alleluias. there is a woman in our church who feels the same way. and we feel free to slip in an alleluia on the side. Thank you for this. I finally searched to see if I could find something about this not believing I am the only one. And then I see you too have known loss and no wonder you get it.
Thank you so much for your comment.
I couldn’t go to Ash Wednesday for the first several years after the accident for that reason. I lived Ash Wednesday.
There is a space, I believe, for Ash Wednesday, and Lent. I think that in a culture that is bent on almost intentional avoidance of death—-in all its forms—-the day and the season serve as a reminder that, actually, we are finite.
Nevertheless, God is present even there.
The two, done well, can also help us reshape, and re-orient, life: knowing that we are finite, how do we better savor, treasure, steward, these moments of life?
All of that said, exactly like you wrote above, “I need alleluias.” They don’t ignore death; they defy it with hope.