“Alleluia” “Praise God, You People”

March 29, 2010

At the beginning of Lent, we laid the word’ alleluia’ to rest. As Ash Wednesday unfolded, ‘alleluia’ was banished from our worship, our songs, our prayers not to return until the evening of Easter Saturday, banished for the more than forty days of Lent. Within some Christian traditions, this practice is referred to as “burying the alleluia” so as to unearth it from the tomb on Easter Sunday. This is not something new, not a recent liturgical fad. In fact, many can remember the days of Lent when not only was the ‘alleluia’ to disappear, but so too the statues, the crosses and the paintings in our churches, all covered with black drapes until Easter Sunday morning when all would be uncovered once again and the songs and choruses of alleluia would redound anew.

‘Alleluia’ is an odd word for us to have kept within our liturgy anyway. Although it has been used within our celebration of the liturgy from the very beginning, alleluia is not a Greek or Latin word, the languages of the early liturgy.   Like ‘hosanna’ and ‘amen’ it comes from the Hebrew scriptures. It is not even really a word but a phrase, a derivation of “Praise Yah, you people” with “Yah” representing the first two letters of YHWH, the personal name for God.  When one works even further back into the original Hebrew, the imperative “to praise” seems to have the sense of “to boast joyously in praise,” to seem to act foolishly and madly.  There’s a sense of spontaneity in uttering the phrase, almost in the way that it is used today in some evangelical congregations where members of the community punctuate the preaching of the sermon with ‘amen’ and ‘alleluia.’  The early Christians seemed to have taken it as their own acclamation early on. We see it in the Book of Revelation, where St. John in chapter 19 has a vision of the heavenly host crying out over and over again ‘alleluia!’  The early texts of the liturgy testify to its usage within the celebration of daily prayer and the Eucharist.  “Alleluia’ seemed to capture the great rapture of faith and the promise of salvation at the heart of Christian praise and hope.  “Alleluia! God is great! God has done and continues to do wonderful things!”

But beginning around the seventh century, something interesting begins to happen.  As the custom of keeping a preparatory season for Easter develops – what we now call Lent- the ‘alleluia’ begins to disappear from usage during these forty days.  We don’t have any writings from this time as to why this happened only evidence that it did.  It probably happened as the season of Lent became less about preparing men and women for entrance into the Church at Easter and more of a season of penance and conversion.   Lent also came to focus heavily on the passion and suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ culminating with the celebration of Good Friday and the development of extraordinary representations of the Passion of our Lord within some cultures.  As a season of sorrow, penance, fasting, abstinence, and contrition, Lent just didn’t seem to contain a place for an ‘alleluia.’

Down to today, we keep the tradition of “burying the alleluia” during the season of Lent right down to today.  There is a wonderful moment in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday when the ‘alleluia’ makes its appearance once again, just before the proclamation of the Easter Gospel.  One year, I was in a church in England for the Vigil and the music people of the parish took this to a very creative and wonderful place.  After the proclamation from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we sat in silence as the doors of the church were opened to allow the damp chill air of the evening in.  Unexpectedly, off in the distance, we heard the notes of the Easter Alleluia being played on a trumpet.   After a brief pause, the notes sounded once again, this time much closer.  A final pause of thirty seconds or so, and this time, the Alleluia was right outside the door.   Inside the church, a cantor stepped in front of the door and began to sing Alleluia! Alleluia Alleluia! as she made her way down the main aisle towards the front of the sanctuary at which point the organ, the choir, the trumpet, and all of us were invited to lift up our voices in an Alleluia! of praise. The whole moment was magical, as if the Risen Christ had entered the church, having started from off in the distance and drawing closer and closer once again until he stood in our midst as he did with his disciples in the upper room so long ago and said, “Peace be with you.”

And so this Easter, the Alleluia which had been “buried” in Lent is unearthed from its tomb and we hear it sung anew.   Perhaps in its notes we hear the voice of the Risen Christ drawing near to us speaking words of hope and renewal, calling us out of the tomb of worry, of stress, of sin, of life’s burdens:

“Rise, let us leave this place…. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity. [from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday]