The season of Easter in the church is the time of rejoicing in God’s greatness. Do you recall some liturgical markers that signify the shift from Lent to Easter? (Maybe, from children’s focus on Easter Sunday?) Yes, apart from singing the Gloria again, we have welcomed back, and are using more often than usual, the word “Hallelujah” (“God be praised”). To praise someone means to “tell someone of their greatness”, and, in contrast to thanksgiving, to do so for simply who one is, rather than what one has done – an important nuance that helps preserve sincerity of worship in times of trial.
One of our today’s texts was Ps 148. Of the 150 psalms, more than a third contains laments, which freely and explicitly express the doubts and anguish of the people who, at times, must have felt that God was either not in control or did not care for them. I love the honesty of these psalms; but, I also love that the Psalter has been curated to have praise as its final word, in its last 7 psalms. Of these, the very last 5 psalms, including today's 148, all begin with the line “Hallelujah” -- especially suitable for Easter! The psalter was compiled at some point between 500 and 100 BC. Ps 148 might have been intended for the liturgical use in the Jerusalem temple. It has three parts, each of which calls a group of creatures to praise their Creator: first, the stars and angels in heaven (1-6); second, all creatures on earth, excluding the people (7-10); and finally, all people: young and old, kings and servants, men and women (11-14). The psalm calls us to partnership with other creatures in praising God in the spiritual and material realms, as well as in our hearts. As our passage from Acts indicates, no animal is unclean, and no human is unworthy of this task. The book of Revelation gives us a set of images that represent the ultimate collaboration in worship of all creatures for all eternity in heaven, and we have read several of its passages over the last few Sundays.
We do not know exactly how animals, planets, storms, and mountains praise God, or how infants and people with cognitive disabilities do so either. There is likely an element of praise that these creatures, and ourselves, offer to God simply by existing, and by living in harmony with their purpose. For us, this means loving one another, as Jesus commanded his disciples at the Last Supper in John’s gospel. Our Eucharistic prayer – every version of it! – makes it clear that in “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” we give to God the only gift we could possibly give him on our own accord as his creatures.
It is worth noting that praise is a sacrifice - no less; of time, effort, getting up early, staying focused during the liturgy, staying intentional in daily living. Even more so, any praise – of God or other people – is the ultimate sacrifice of attention to self. For our emulation, we have the example of ancient psalmists and the record of their wrestling with God. Countless psalms have been paraphrased as poems and set to music, including quite famously, Ps 148 which St Francis turned into his “Canticle of Creation”, and which has become a hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”. We will sing it today in closing.
What’s less well-known is that Francis was blind, ill, and close to death when he wrote it. Similarly, we have other scriptural examples of praise offered in dire circumstances or upon a narrow escape from such. You might recall the stories of young Jewish people who were exiled to Babylon and lived in danger of persecution. On one occasion, the three youths called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were cast into a furnace upon their refusal to participate in idol worship (Dan 3). The reason I mention it is that in another, deuterocanonical text (The Song of the Three 35-66), we find what they said and did while in the furnace, which ends with the passage that exactly replicates the structure of Psalm 148, ending with a Hallelujah – like Ps 148 and the psalter as a whole do. It also elaborately expands on the imagery of the psalm. Despite its apocryphal origins, we use it in the Anglican Daily Offices, in which it is known as the Benedicite Omnia Opera canticle.
On this page, you find a very early Christian artistic representation of the three youths who sang Benedicite within the still burning furnace. Recall that they were also accompanied, and kept miraculously unharmed, by a mysterious fourth figure. It struck me that the image comes from the catacombs built in the late 3rd or early 4th century, when the final and most severe wave of Christian persecution took place. The image must have been a source of comfort, and the reason for having it painted — that it served as a reminder of God’s providence and his mysterious yet tangible presence, as they worshiped in hiding. Their praise was a sacrifice that involved giving up much more than we do when we come to church in our time and part of the world.
How good are we at glorifying and praising God in good times and bad, in Easter and throughout the year, in church and daily life? Of course, in addition to worship, we come to church for a sense of community and support, to feel moved by the music, to learn from the sermon, to do our jobs as a server, reader, or clergy, to take care of parish administration, liturgical set up, and supplying the coffee hour. I don’t think that it is altogether wrong if only one of these reasons happens to be the chief motivation for being here; however, I’d like to emphasize today that, ideally, an attitude of praise should always accompany whatever other reason prevails in bringing us here. And in return for our sacrifice of praise – that is, of attention to self – we might, in fact, get a much healthier appreciation of ourselves as simply one voice that sings with others in the entire chorus of creation. Yes, perhaps, our importance and gifts and specialness might then begin to seem smaller; but, so might our shortcomings. So may we continually offer our very lives as the canticle of praise to our Creator. And, as the artists, singers, or poets do, may we invite others, by engagement with it, to enter the sacred place of contemplating the mystery of creation. Amen.