Lent and the”H” word

This is a story about offending linguistic sensibilities.

A number of years ago I was preaching in the local Christian Reformed Church on the Sunday before Palm Sunday.

The timing is crucial to the story.

The text was Mark 10, wherein we meet the confluence of the stories of James and John asking to be granted to sit at the right and left hand side of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom, and Blind Bartimaeus who more humbly requests to see.

And in the sermon I said something to the effect of:

When the other disciples heard of what James and John had requested, all hell broke loose.

Then, following Mark’s telling of the story, I contrasted the power and status hungry James and John with Bartimaeus, the blind man.

He sought neither power nor status, but simply to see.

Bartimaeus is healed and, in a quintessentially Markan way,
we are told that he, “immediately followed Jesus along the road.”

“To where?” I asked.

“To see Jesus come into his kingdom, with a thief to his right and a thief to his left.”

And then, to help prepare the community for Holy Week, I said something to the effect of:

“Like Bartimaeus, and like James and John, we are on our way to the cross. Next week we will join the crowds singing “Hosanna,” only to change our cry to “Crucify him” on Good Friday. And then, my friends, we will be silent on Holy Saturday before we can cry “Hallelujah” on Easter morning.”

End of sermon.

That afternoon, while I was preparing for the evening service, which took the form of a Bible study conversation about the Mark 10 passage from the morning, my youngest child came to me and said,

“Daddy you said a bad word this morning. You said the “H” word.”

Presuming that I am probably the better judge of what constitutes a bad word, and rather preoccupied with the task at hand, I kind of fluffed off the comment.

“Don’t worry, honey, it was fine.”

Well, the evening service came off without a hitch, I prayed with the elders at the end of the service, and there was my friend, Grace, waiting to talk to me.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you about your sermon.”

I may have fluffed off my child, but you don’t fluff off Grace. My friend is a woman of deep wisdom and I know that if she has a concern, then I should pay attention.

“I don’t think that ‘all hell broke loose,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, “well let me ask you this. Do you think that all hell broke loose when the American forces launched their attack on Iraq?”

“Yes,” Grace replied, “that would be fair to say.”

“Then your concern,” I continued, “was that this was too cheap a use of the word ‘hell.’”

“Yes, that is precisely my concern.”

“Well isn’t that interesting, Finn raised the same issue about my use of that word this morning.”

Laughing, Grace replied, “Out of the mouth of babes.”

So I acknowledged the validity of the point, and that I had in fact employed the word ‘hell’ for its shock value, and it was a cheap trick.

Now, of course, I had to deal with my child who I had not taken seriously earlier in the day.

When I came home, Finn was in bed, but not yet asleep. So I came into their room, snuggled up and said, “I’m sorry that I didn’t take you seriously today when you said that I shouldn’t have used the “H” word in my sermon. Grace said the same thing tonight. I shouldn’t have said that “all hell broke loose.”

At which point Finn’s eyes widened and they said,

“That isn’t the H word! You said [now kind of whispering and mouthing the word], hallelujah.”

Oh my goodness. I had offended not one, but two very different linguistic sensibilities.

I immediately called Grace and we had a good laugh about this confusion. 

We may have been attending a Christian Reformed Church at the time, but our Finn, raised in the Anglican tradition at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto, had (and continues to have) a deeply Anglican understanding of liturgical season, and Lenten disciplines.

Folks in more liturgical traditions–Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran–refrain from pronouncing “Hallelujah” during Lent. In a sense, we fast from such an exuberant word of praise, until we can do it with Easter enthusiasm when we sing, “Hallelujuah, the Lord is Risen!”

There is something about refraining from “Hallelujah” for 40 days that makes the Easter proclamation all the more sweet when we come to the end of our Lenten fast.

Today is Shrove Tuesday. For lots of Christians, this is a day of partying to excess. When I pastored the Wine Before Breakfast community we would throw lots of “Hallelujah’s” into our liturgy on this day, and then go crazy with a spread of very rich and sweet food for breakfast.

And then the Amish summer sausage that folks so enjoyed would disappear for Lent, and so would all the Hallelujah’s. Only to come back with gusto when we celebrated the resurrection six weeks later.

So what is the moral of this story?

Well, maybe I’m encouraging you to consider your Lenten fast this year.

And, be careful what you say. The “H” word can get you into a heck of a lot of trouble.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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