Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Sunlight streamed through the window as the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah filled our little kitchen nook. The children gathered around my husband as held up the word “Alleluia” scrawled out on a piece of foil. We were about to literally bury the “Alleluia,” to remind us that it would not be a part of our liturgical prayer until the Easter Vigil.
It was the eve of Septuagesima, seventy days before Easter, the beginning of the Season of Septuagesima, the time the Church, in her wisdom, gave her people in the old, traditional calendar to prepare ourselves for Lent. Since we mainly attend the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Traditional Latin Mass), we follow the older liturgical seasons in our home. In the new calendar, the “Alleluia” is buried the Sunday before Ash Wednesday or on Shrove Tuesday.
My husband prayed traditional antiphons dating from the ninth century used to bid farewell to the word of Easter joy:
May the good angel of the Lord accompany thee, Alleluia,
and give thee a good journey, that thou mayst come back to us in joy, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Alleluia, abide with us today, and tomorrow thou shalt set forth, Alleluia;
and when the day shall have risen, thou shalt proceed on thy way, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
We all joined in with the boisterous, joyful “Alleluias.” After the prayer, my husband processed the word outside into the bitter cold of the Minnesota February and scraped up the earth from a garden bed beside the house. Placing the word lovingly into the earth, he patted the dirt into the hole to be dug up again after the Easter Vigil. When we woke up the next morning several inches of snow had covered the ground under which the Alleluia lay buried.
Dom Prosper Guéranger quotes Abbot Rupert discussing the Alleluia:
“It’s mysterious beauty is as though a drop of heaven’s overflowing joy had fallen down on our earth. […] It signifies the eternal feast of the angels and saints, which consists in their endless praise of God, and in ceaselessly singing their new admiration of the beauty of God on whose Face they are to gaze for everlasting ages.” (The Liturgical Year, Vol 4, “Saturday Before Septuagesima Sunday.)
The joy of this word, which praises God in a way we humans cannot fathom, is to be denied us all of the season of Lent. This is a mortification of our hearts and voices to remind us that we are entering a time of purification, a time where we are to make our hearts ready to celebrate Easter. It is so much more than just not saying a word, but the denial of it is meant to rouse us to Lenten fasting, prayer, and abstinence.
“By taking from us our Alleluia, [the Church] virtually tells us that our lips must first be cleansed, before they can again be permitted to utter this word of angels and saints; and that our hearts, defiled as they are by sin and attachment to earthly things, must be purified by repentance.” (Dom Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, Vol 4, “Saturday Before Septuagesima Sunday.)
This is what Lent is about. St. Gregory the Great describes the days of Lent as “the tithe of our year,” an offering of 10% of the days of the year to God in fasting and prayer (Homily 16 on the Gospels). Giving up the “Alleluia” reminds us of our great need to make sacrifices and offer up prayer to God. Only he can purify us and make us whole, and he guides us in this through the liturgical year of the Church.
It is incredible how one single word can have such a deep meaning for the Church. But the absence of it in the liturgy is a stark one for us. My children try not to say or listen to it even at home.
“Mommy, mommy!” my 7-year-old called up to me from their playroom where they were listening to an album of Bible songs. “The word we can’t say! They are singing the word we can’t say! We have to skip the song!” My 5-year-old sat covering his ears. Their sweet sincerity about following the Church is something we can learn from.
Maybe we can enter into the loss of “Alleluia” this Lent with the loving heart of a child. And the loss of it can remind us of the joy that is to come, the joy we participate in at Easter. Dom Guéranger says it so beautifully, “It is the song that recalls the land we are banished from, it is the sweet sig of the soul longing to be at home.” We need Lent to help us get to our eternal home, let us make an offering of ourselves with Christ.