THE EASTER BOOK
by Francis X. Weiser, S.J.
Copyright, 1954, by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.
Chapter 2: Farewell to Alleluia
Alleluia, or hallelujah, is one of the few Hebrew words adopted by the Christian Church from apostolic times. It means “Praise the Lord!”
On Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday (the third Sunday before Lent) this ancient and hallowed exclamation of joy and praise in the Christian liturgy is officially discontinued in the Western Church to signify the approach of the solemn season of Lent. According to the regulation of Pope Alexander II (1073) the Alleluia is sung twice after the prayers of the Divine Office,4 and not heard again till the solemn vigil service of Easter, when it once more is used as a glorious proclamation of Easter joy. The Greek Church, however, still retains the Alleluia even in Lent.
Saint John the Evangelist mentioned alleluia in his Apocalypse (chapter 19), and the early Church accepted the word from the beginning. From Jerusalem the custom of using it spread with the expanding Church into all nations. It is interesting to note that nowhere and at no time was any effort made to translate it into the vernacular, as Saint Isidor of Seville (636) mentioned in his writings.5 He explains it by the reverence for the hallowed traditions of the Apostolic Church.
In addition to the official liturgy, as early as the third century, the Christian writer Tertullian said in his treatise on prayer, the faithful of his time used to insert many alleluias in their private devotions.6 Saint Jerome (420) praised the pious farmers and tradesmen who used to sing it at their toil, and the mothers who taught their babies to pronounce alleluia before any other word.7
In the Roman Empire the Alleluia became the favorite prayerful song of oarsmen and navigators. Saint Augustine (430) alluded to this custom, saying, “Let the Alleluia be our sweet rowing-song!”8 And some years later, the Roman poet and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris (480) described how the river banks and shores of Gaul resounded with the Alleluia song of the rowing boatmen.9 Even the Roman soldiers fighting against pagan barbarians used it as battle cry and war song. Saint Bede the Venerable (735), in his history of England, reported such an “Alleluia victory” won by the Christian Bretons over the Picts and Scots in 429.10
Finally, the expression “Alleluia, the Lord is risen” became the general greeting of Christians in early medieval times on the Feast of the Resurrection. Apart from these popular usages the Alleluia has at all times found its primary and most meaningful application in the official liturgy. In the early centuries, the Roman Church used it only during Easter time, but it soon spread over the rest of the ecclesiastical year, except of course, during Lent. In many places it was sung even at funerals and burial Masses as an expression of the conviction that for a true Christian the day of death was actually the birthday of eternal life, a day of joy.11
The depositio (discontinuance) of the Alleluia on the eve of Septuagesima assumed in medieval times a solemn and emotional note of saying farewell to the beloved song. Despite the fact that Pope Alexander II had ordered a very simple and somber way of “deposing” the Alleluia, a variety of farewell customs prevailed in many countries up to the sixteenth century. They were inspired by the sentiment which Bishop William Duranti (1296) voiced in his commentaries on the Divine Office: “We part from the Alleluia as from a beloved friend, whom we embrace many times and kiss on mouth, head and hand, before we leave him.”12
The liturgical office on the eve of Septuagesima was performed in many churches with special solemnity, and alleluias were freely inserted in the sacred text, even to the number of twenty-eight final alleluias in the Church of Auxerre (France). This custom also inspired some tender poems which were sung or recited during Vespers in honor of the sacred word. The best known of these hymns is, Alleluia, dulce carmen (Alleluia, Song of Gladness), composed by an unknown author of the tenth century. It was translated into English by John Mason Neale (1866) and may be found in the official hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church.13 Here is another translation, of three stanzas, from the Latin text:
Alleluia, hymn of sweetness,
Hallowed word, eternal song.
Alleluia, praise and prayer
Offered by the angels’ throng,
Ringing through the realm of Glory,
Ever new and ever strong.Alleluia, now no longer
Will be heard on earth below.
Alleluia, sin and sorrow
Interrupt thy gracious flow;
Lent is come and we, the sinners,
Humbly must our penance show.
Hear, o God, the plea of mercy,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Through a blessed Easter help us
So to live that, last and most,
We may sing the Alleluia
Evermore in Heaven’s host.
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 Benedicamus [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 mourning, 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.14
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 church yard.
With the exception of these quaint aberrations, however, the farewell to alleluia in most countries was an appropriate addition to the official ceremonies of the liturgy. The special texts (hymns, responsories, antiphons) used on that occasion were taken mostly from Holy Scripture, and are filled with pious sentiments of devotion, like the following unusual personification collected from a farewell service of the Mozarabic liturgy of Spain (ninth or tenth century):
Stay with us today, Alleluia,
And tomorrow thou shalt part.
When the morning rises,
Thou shalt go thy way.
Alleluia, alleluia.May the Lord be thy custodian, Alleluia,
And the angel of God accompany thee.
May the Lord keep thee alive
And protect thee from every evil.
The mountains and hills shall rejoice, Alleluia,
While they await thy glory.
Thou goest, Alleluia; may thy way be blessed,
Until thou shalt return with joy.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.15
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. No one who has witnessed it will ever forget the deep emotions of peace and Easter joy that surge up in the hearts and show on the faces of the faithful when the celebrant of the Mass on Holy Saturday intones this sacred word, repeating it three times, as a jubilant herald of the Resurrection of Christ. And Christian Churches all over the world include the Alleluia in all their Easter services in praise of the Risen Lord. This word also inspired Handel’s familiar “Hallelujah Chorus” in his oratorio The Messiah (1742).
4. Official liturgical prayer of the Church recited daily by clerics in major orders and also by many religious both male and female.
5. De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, I, 13; J. P. Migne, PL (Patrologia Latina), vol. LXXXIII, col. 750.
6. Liber de Oratione, chap. 27; PL, vol. I, col. 1194.
7. Ad Marcellam Epistola, p. 46; PL, vol. XXII, col. 491.
8. De Cantico Novo, chap. 2; PL, vol. XL, col. 680.
9. Epistolarum Liber II, ep. 10; PL, vol. LVIII, col. 488.
10. Historia Gentis Anglorum, lib. I, chap. 20; PL, vol. XCV, col. 49
11. St. Jerome, De Morte Fabiolae, ep. 77; PL, vol. XXII, chap. 697. Also Acta Sanctorum (Boland.), August 3, p. 83 (on the burial service of St. Radegundis).
12. Gulielmus Durandus (senior), Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, lib. VI, chap. 24, par. 18.
13. The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America 1940, New York, 1943, Hymn No. 54.
14. Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, Oxford, 1933, vol. I, p. 552 (Latin text).
15. Clemens Blume, Des Alleluja Leben, Begrabnis und Auferstehung, in Stimmen aus Maria Laach, Freiburg, 1897, vol. I, p. 429 (Latin text).