It’s the Easter season and, like most springs, if you’ve spent any time in a church you’ve encountered not only the allergens from wilting lilies but also the reappearance of the Alleluia after a long absence during Lent. Yes, Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the Easter season — those 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday — is in full swing. The Alleluia reigns once again.
And though Easter resurrection is always nicely accompanied by the arrival of the spring season, many times the message of new life is out of sync with the rest of life, at least mine.
Several years ago during the Easter season I was working as an orderly in a cancer hospice caring for patients who were close to death. Partnered with another Jesuit, we bathed emaciated patients from all walks of life, changing them when they needed to be changed, and helping to clean and prepare the bodies of those who had died. One of my friends described it often as a “terrible, wonderful place.” It’s a spot-on description. My brief time there remains as one of the most challenging and memorable times of my life, and I find that I’m still unpacking many of those moments even today (though I’m not sure I would head back there unless it were under holy obedience).
During my time there I made it a habit to spend time with the psalms, noticing their poetry and refrains. One thing struck me as especially unusual: almost every line of one particular psalm ended with same phrase, “Alleluia, Alleluia.” Since much of the daily prayer was repetitive, I found myself saying these words over and over. I said them many times a day for weeks on end.
Eventually those eight syllables began to tunnel their way into my brain, surfacing – like a catchy radio jingle from my childhood – at the most random of times. That double repetition was… it was just there, just behind my last thought, floating through my subconscious, ready to burst forth and attach itself to anything and everything.
At first the Alleluias clung to silly statements; I’d hear the voice on the subway intercom say: “Next stop, Yankee Stadium. Alleluia, Alleluia.” (As a Mets fan, this was hard to hear.) Then Alleluias got connected to daily, monotonous happenings; the woman at the hospital cafeteria would bark: “So that’s the pudding, an apple and the soup. $5.95. Alleluia, Alleluia.” And then I began to hear it in more serious contexts; the charge nurse declaring one morning “Room 417 needs to be changed, Alleluia, Alleluia.” And then as I stepped onto the unit a colleague, warning in her voice, intoned: “Your patient died over the weekend, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Or the hospital chaplain whispering: “She’s close to the end now. Alleluia, Alleluia.”
It was there, in the hallways of that hospice, that I learned the meaning of Alleluia: God redeems this.
God was redeeming my rides by Yankee Stadium, redeeming my apples and soups, redeeming the humiliations and deaths of my patients.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas during this Easter season, I find myself again attaching the familiar “Alleluia, Alleluia” to the bitterness of the news these days. And to my raw feelings of pain, sorrow and sadness.
For me, “Alleluia, Alleluia” means that I believe that God can redeem even these tragic events. Indeed, “Alleluia, Alleluia” says a lot about who I believe God to be: not the cause, but the comforter.