Wednesday, March 24, 2010

No Hallelujahs Shall be Sung During Lent

A few Sundays ago, the church choir in an emergency "oops" moment, skillfully substituted the words, "Lord have mercy" for the "Alleluias" in the anthem, "Draw us in the Spirit's Tether" by Friedel. The Sunday bulletin printed the forbidden words however. Was that wrong? Tracing this tradition proved to be a rewarding experience.

The custom of burying the Alleluias during Lenten worship appears to go back for many centuries, perhaps as early as the fifth century.

I browsed around and found the following at the Canberra Traditional Latin Mass Community:

The depositio (discontinuance) of the Alleluia on the eve of Septuagesima assumed in mediæval times a solemn and emotional note of saying farewell to the beloved song. Despite the fact that Pope Alexander II [in the eleventh century] had ordered a very simple and sombre way of "deposing" the Alleluia, a variety of farewell customs prevailed in many countries up to the sixteenth century...

In some French churches the custom developed in ancient times of allowing the congregation to take part in the celebration of a quasi-liturgical farewell ceremony. The clergy abstained from any role in this popular service. Choirboys officiated in their stead at what was called "Burial of the Alleluia" performed the Saturday afternoon before Septuagesima Sunday. We find a description of it in the fifteenth-century statute book of the church of Toul:

"On Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday all choir boys gather in the sacristy during the prayer of the None, to prepare for the burial of the Alleluia. After the last Benedicámus (i.e., at the end of the service) they march in procession with crosses, tapers, holy water and censers; and they carry a coffin, as in a funeral. Thus they proceed through the aisle, moaning and morning, until they reach the cloister. There they bury the coffin; they sprinkle it with holy water and incense it; whereupon they return to the sacristy by the same way."

In Paris, a straw figure bearing in golden letters the inscription "Alleluia" was carried out of the choir at the end of the service, and burned in the churchyard [...]

Thus the Alleluia is sung for the last time, and not heard again until it suddenly bursts into glory during the Mass of the Easter Vigil, when the celebrant intones this sacred word after the Epistle, repeating it three times as a jubilant herald of the Resurrection of Christ.

Father Franz Xaver WEISER SJ
Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, 1958)

The Anglican Curmudgeon posted this video a year ago before Lent 2009. Some of us could not help but watch it during Lent. I saw, but did not hear, any alleluias. Did I break my discipline? Will you be breaking yours today if you watch the video?


  1. Invariably, on the first Sunday of Lent (and a few thereafter) somebody in our little mission will say "Alleluia..." (trailing off in embarassment) after the "Thanks be to God." A sweet mistake. Several of our younger members have no previous liturgical experience at all, so they demanded an explanation of the cessation of alleluia's. That's another plus of a working in a new church -- we learn afresh why we do what we do and what it signifies.

  2. That's a tradition which was unfamiliar to me. Thanks for the lesson.


  3. In the Easter Orthodox Churches Lent is the season of the alleuia. Eastern Orthodox parishes and churches ring with alleluias. It is only the Western Church that abandoned singing God's praise with alleluias during the Lenten season. Even then it is a late custom.

    Rather than not use hymns that praise God during Lent with alleuias, I suggest the simple expedient of substituting "O Praise God" for alleluia for those who suffer with a overdeveloped sense of liturgical correctness, which my former rector once told me that I had and he did not mean it as a compliment.

    While the liturgically correct rector (or vicar) may have a fit of apoplexy if we sing alleluia during the season of Lent, God will not. What matters to God is not that we may observe every rubric and custom in celebrating the liturgy but that our hearts are close to him.

    It is also customary to omit the Te Deum in Lent and sing the Benedicite Omnia Opera in its place. Both are wonderful hymns of praise. This is also a late custom. In the Western Church in the cathedral office of Lauds the Benedicite Omnia Opera was sung year round as were the laudate psalms - Psalms 148, 149, and 150, with their alleluias. They were the heart of the cathedral office of Lauds. The cathedral office, however, fell into disuse as monasticism took a grip upon the Western Church and eventually the monastic office of Lauds replaced the cathedral office.

    One of the earliest ways the Psalms were sung in the Christian Church was that a cantor or schola of cantors sung the verses and the congregation sung alleluia after each verse. The Psalms were sung this way in Lent as well during the rest of the church year.

  4. Thanks all.


    You just made me feel a pang of guilt over a Lenten performance of Hayden's Te Deum.

  5. Those of us who listen to "Christian Radio" for contemporary worship music get hosed... most of those stations are non-denoms with no sense of liturgical seasons and their play lists include all kinds of "A" and "H" words.

  6. I know the "A" word but "H" that 'Hosanna'?

    1. Hallelujah (just don't tell anybody because we are still in Lent).