What Happened to the “A” Word?

27 Mar

Before Lent, my family hangs a string of letters that spell A-L-L-E-L-U-I-A. Then on Fat Tuesday we put all the letters in a sack, only to take them out at Easter. Why does “Alleluia” go into hibernation for forty days?

We encounter several changes in the Mass during Lent. Probably the most distinctive liturgical change during the season of Lent, however, is the removal of “Alleluia” from any and every celebration. Both Advent and Lent share the same liturgical color (purple), and both drop the Gloria from the seasonal Masses, but only Lent forbids the use of “Alleluia.”

We notice this change most especially before the Gospel, when we sing “Glory and Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ” or some other alternative to “Alleluia.” Yet this ban also applies to liturgical music as well as the Liturgy of the Hours.

Alleluia, or “Hallelu-yah” is of Hebrew origin, meaning “Praise Yahweh.” It occurs frequently in Scripture, particularly in the Psalms, and is associated with the praise and jubilation of the choirs of angels around God’s throne in Heaven. In the Mass, we enter into the praise and joy of angelic worship as we receive a foretaste of heavenly glory.

Because of the penitential character of the season of Lent, singing or saying the word “alleluia” has traditionally been suspended during Lent’s forty days. During this season we reflect on our need for repentance to the extent we have fallen short in living out our baptismal faith.

The omission of alleluia during Lent goes back at least to the fifth century in the West. The hymn “Alleluia, Song of Gladness” contains a translation of an 11th-century Latin text that compares an alleluia-less Lent to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The text then anticipates the joy of Easter when glad alleluias will return in all their heavenly splendor.

At the Easter Vigil, the priest or deacon will chant a triple Alleluia before he reads the Gospel, and everyone present will respond with a triple Alleluia. The Lord is risen; the Kingdom has come; our joy is complete. In concert with the angels and saints, we once again greet the risen Lord with shouts of “Alleluia!”

And then our family will come home and roll away the stone in our Easter scene and celebrate the feast of Our Lord’s Resurrection.

And somewhere along the line we will once again the string the A-L-L-E-L-U-I-A across our mantle!

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