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March 2, 2017, 8:27 AM

Why don't we say "alleluia" during Lent?

You may (or may not) have noticed that the word "alleluia" disappears from the liturgy during Lent. But why? 

Well, because of the penitential character of the season of Lent, singing or saying the word "alleluia" has historically been suspended during Lent's forty days. Some have described the omission of the word as a "fast" from the exuberant joy that "alleluia!" is meant to evoke--until we hear again the Good News of Christ's resurrection on Easter.  The word itself comes from the Hebrew word, hallelu yah, meaning “Praise the Lord.”  

The omission of alleluia during Lent goes back at least to the fifth century in the western church. Later in the Middle Ages, a custom of actually bidding it farewell (or "burying the alleluia") developed, which some congregations still practice (it makes for a great children's sermon!).  The hymn "Alleluia, song of gladness" (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #318) contains a translation of an 11th century 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:

1      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.

2     Alleluia you are sounding, true Jerusalem and free;
        alleluia, joyful mother, bring us to your jubilee; 
        here by Babylon's sad waters mourning exiles still are we.

3      Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below;
        alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;
        for the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin shall flow.

4      In our hymns we pray with longing: Grant us, blessed Trinity,
        at the last to keep glad Easter with the faithful saints on high;
        there to you forever singing alleluia joyfully.

As we begin this season of Lent, may our "fasting from Alleluia" remind us of our need for prayer, fasting and acts of love (almsgiving) to draw us closer to God--recall the gospel reading from Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  And may it help us anticipate not only the joy of Easter, but the eternal joy that Christ's resurrection promises us all.

The information above is adapted from the ELCA Worship resource, "Why don't we use alleluias during Lent?":'t_we_use_alleluias_during_Lent.pdf.  The hymn text for "Alleluia, songs of gladness" is public domain.

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