Burial of the Alleluia
Fr. Scott Haynes
In the language of prayer, some words need no translation. Amen is such a word, a Hebrew word of assent meaning “so be it,” by which a congregation affixes its signature, if you will, to the official prayer of the Church.
The Kyrie eleison (i.e., “Lord, have mercy”) remained in Greek even after the Roman Rite adopted Latin as its mother tongue. Allelúia is a word familiar to all Christendom, whether the language of the local liturgy is Latin or Greek, Spanish or Ukrainian, Polish or Vietnamese. Allelúia is the Latinized form of Hebrew’s Hallelujah (i.e., “Praise the Lord”). In the West, we associate Allelúia with the joy of the Resurrection and Easter. Consequently, the Church buries the Allelúia while we put on the ashes and sackcloth of penance. Pope Alexander II decreed that the dismissal of the Allelúia be solemnly marked on the eve of Septuagesima Sunday (i.e., three Sundays before Ash Wednesday) in the chanting of the Divine Office by inserting Allelúias in the sacred text. This custom also inspired the creation of new hymns sung at Vespers honouring the Allelúia. The best-known of these hymns is Allelúia, dulce carmen (i.e., “Allelúia, Song of Gladness”), composed by an unknown author of the tenth century: Alleluia, song of gladness, voice of joy that cannot die; Alleluia is the anthem ever dear to choirs on high; In the house of God abiding thus they sing eternally. Alleluia thou resoundest, true Jerusalem and free; Alleluia, joyful mother, all thy children sing with thee; But by Babylon’s sad waters mourning exiles now are we. Alleluia we deserve not here to chant forevermore; Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while give o’er; For the holy time is coming bidding us our sins deplore. Therefore in our hymns we pray Thee, grant us, blessèd Trinity, At the last to keep Thine Easter in our home beyond the sky; There to Thee forever singing Allelúia joyfully. During the Middle Ages, the practice of “burying the Allelúia” on the eve of Septuagesima Sunday was enhanced by a popular ritual guided by the choir boys. We find a description of it in the fifteenth-century statute book of the church of Toul, France:
“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 Allelúia. After the last Benedicamus Domino [i.e., at the end of the Vespers 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.”
This burial of the Allelúia was nicknamed the deposition (i.e., “the giving on deposit”). Curiously enough, gravestones in Catholic cemeteries traditionally had the inscription Depositus, or simply “D,” to indicate a Christian’s burial. When this term indicates the burial of the Allelúia or of the faithful departed, the Christian belief in resurrection is clear. As we bury those who have been “marked with the sign of faith,” (Roman Canon), and as we enter into the fasting of Lent, we do not silence our tongues because of despair or permanent loss. Rather, we do so with confidence that what has been deposited into the earth—our dead, our Allelúia—will rise again. Yet in this period of preparation, we remain keenly aware of the mystery of sin and of our exile from the place where Allelúia abounds. So until we return to the New Jerusalem, let us not forget the sin that continues to devastate our world and our mission to heal what has been broken. Three weeks before Ash Wednesday we begin the Pre-Lenten time of preparation for Easter. The third Sunday prior to Lent, nicknamed Septuagesima Sunday (Latin for “seventy”), roughly 70 days before Easter, reminds us of the seventy years of Babylonian Jewish exile. Psalm 137 recalls how the Jews prayed their tongues would be silenced if they forgot Jerusalem in ruins. From this psalm came the practice of fasting from singing the Allelúia during the Gospel acclamation throughout Lent and replacing it with a different acclamation of praise for Christ (e.g., Laus tibi Domine, Rex aeternae gloriae – “Praise to You, Lord, King of endless glory”). The Medieval liturgical commentator, William Durandus, said: “We desist from saying Allelúia, the song chanted by angels, because we have been excluded from the company of the angels on account of Adam’s sin. In the Babylon of our earthly life we sit by the streams, weeping as we remember Sion. For as the children of Israel in an alien land hung their harps upon the willows, so we too must forget the Allelúia song in the season of sadness, of penance, and bitterness of heart.” In some churches, the parish children place their decoratively written Allelúias in a small coffin near the entrance of the church. While singing the Allelúia, dulce carmen, the procession moves to the church cemetery where the coffin is buried. In other churches, an altar boy holds a large ornate board on which is inscribed Allelúia in golden letters. He leads the joyous procession to the Lady Altar where the board is solemnly buried underneath the altar cloth until the Allelúia. The Allelúia is resurrected at the Easter Vigil, as the great moment arrives when the Deacon approaches the Bishop with the words, “I announce to you a great joy: it is the Allelúia.” The Priest sings the solemn Allelúia three times, getting higher each time (symbolic of Christ rising from the tomb), as the choir repeats the praise. At last we hear the proclamation of the Holy Gospel at the Paschal Vigil when we hear Jesus is risen from the dead— Allelúia!