Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Burying the Alleluia: Burning Strawmen, Mourning Choirboys

by Matthew Alderman

Descriptive Title

Farewell to the Alleluia on Septuagesima Sunday


For those who are celebrating according to the 1970 calendar, today is the last Sunday when you can sing your Alleluias before the violet of Lent comes closing in. This compilation of articles explains the custom of "burying the Alleluia".

Publisher & Date

New Liturgical Movement, February 14, 2010

For those of our readers who are celebrating according to the 1970 calendar, today is the last Sunday when you can sing your Alleluias before the violet of Lent comes closing in (literally and figuratively, circumdederunt me gemitus mortis). For those of us who are in the Pre-Lent season of the Extraordinary Form (like I was this morning at a very violet, very early Low Mass), this decisive threshhold came at First Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, some weeks ago, where two Alleluias are added at the dismissal, and then it is unheard until the great Paschal vigil. There have been numerous ways--solemn, moving, or sometimes a bit silly, though justifiably so given the spirit of Carnival that has been historically in the air during this time of year, for good or ill--to bid farewell to this glorious word. Certainly I remember during my days at Notre Dame we'd try to cram in as many Alleluias into the hymns for mass that day. Our medieval forefathers commemorated this event with their age's straightforward love of elaboration.

Pope Alexander II had decreed, with the usual Roman sobriety, that a simple ceremony mark this event, called the depositio or dismissal of the Alleluia, but the rest of Europe, with its usual medieval liturgical extravagance, ignored him. Special antiphons marked this event in some places, as well as the singing of the hymn Alleluia, Dulce Carmen. At Auxerre twenty-eight separate Alleluias were troped into the mass text. A procession, with the word Alleluia inscribed on a banner or plaque, might be conducted round the church, with the Alleluia inscription solemnly entombed at the end, the plaque sometimes having the shape of a coffin. In some parts of France, the Alleluia might even be burned in effigy in the churchyard!

It appears the main officiants in this rite were the choirboys, and the event appears to have had that mingled sense of theraputic horseplay and instructive, imitative solemnity that the medievals so excelled in invoking in this and similar ceremonies like that of the boy bishop. (Occasionally, of course, this careful balance might simply cross the line into accidental impiety, as in the case of the frequently-denounced Mass of the Asses, Drunkards and Gamblers that was celebrated around the beginning of January, and the subject of abuses that make our own era's clown liturgies look like solemn high mass at Brompton Oratory).

Such extraliturgical events are reminders of the importance of time to our spiritual life, the infinite variety and gratefulness granted by its periods of plenty and privation. Alleluia is just a word, after all, some might say, and God will not strike us down if we sing it in the depths of Lent. Certainly it is no sin. But such legalism obscures the value of such dismissals and renunciations in shaping our interior life. Without seasons, without time, despite what we might tell ourselves we do not make ourselves eternal like God--we simply fall into the memoryless void of dumb animals.

In some ways, I ought to have posted this some weeks ago, given, after having experienced my first full pre-Lent season at a Tridentine parish, there is great value in this slow, careful preparation for our forty days in the desert with Christ. (Its placement at First Vespers also reminds us that there is, yes, a liturgical life outside of mass.) Yet, for many of us, today is our last day to hear the good news that is Alleluia, and for those readers, I say, be sure to enjoy it! I hope you have been able to give our good friend a proper send-off: Alleluia, Alleluia, song of sweetness, voice of joy that cannot die.

Excerpted from the New Liturgical Movement

Eve of Septuagesima: Farewell Alleluia: New Year of Grace

Pius Parsch once cogently argued that the Liturgical Year - the Church's Year of Grace - doesn't begin with Advent Sunday, but with Septuagesima Sunday!

For at Septuagesima, the Matins Lesson begin "In the beginning...", with Genesis chapter one, verse one. The sober liturgy proceeds through the account of Man's Creation and Fall, and then through the Patriarchs and God's continual call of them back from doom to salvation - at Sexagesima, Noë and the Flood; at Quinquagesima, the call of Abraham.

(The Mozarabic Liturgy for Lent similarly proceeds through the Books of Moses and those of the Kings, but on a much more fulsome scale, with long readings even at the Little Hours, concluding with the Fall of Jerusalem, symbolic of Israel's persistent and final failure to keep the Law, of the ultimate frustration of the Old Testament without the grace of the New. But even then, the Return from Exile in Babylon, and the comforting words of the prophets, foretell the Messianic Age when all Israel shall be saved.)

We cannot begin the New Year of Grace, without remembering how for Man it all started so well, and so quickly went so bad - we cannot begin the New Year of Grace without in sombre recollection thinking on our own sin. We spend the time from now through till Easter turned toward the Lord, conscious of our need and insufficiency, conscious of His mercy and His making speed to save us.

We do not so much put away Alleluia for a time, as begin the Year with it - at first Vespers of Septuagesima (once at the start, and four times at the end with the Benedicamus Domino otherwise special to Paschaltide), signifying that "In the beginning" Man and all that God created was "very good" (as in the Dominican Office the special Responsory at first Vespers tells) - then immediately leave it aside (symbolizing the Fall and the consequent captivity of all men under sin) till Christ by His Victory, bursting forth from the tomb on Easter morn, restores all things in Himself, making all things new.

"Alleluia, our transgressions / Make us for a while give o'er..."

The mediævals called this the Depositio Alleluia, the burial, even of the Alleluia - for as Adam sinned and died and was buried, so the heavenly song of original justice must be laid aside. (Some local ceremonies of old time for this involved writing Alleluia on parchment, and actually burying it!)

At Easter, all that had been foreshadowed is accomplished: "freed from Pharaoh's bitter yoke, Jacob's sons and daughters" - by the new Moses, Our Saviour, Who leads us through the waters of Baptism. With Him as Shepherd and Guide, we set forth for the Promised Land...

We celebrate for fifty days the glory of the Resurrection, which is our resurrection, laying hold on it by grace - for Christ stretches forth His hand to draw us also, like Lazarus, from the tomb.

Pentecost is the Gift of the Spirit, completing the Paschal Mystery; after Pentecost, we live through the Ages of the Church; Advent is the season of looking forward to the Return of Christ; at Christmas and Epiphany, we ought not so much indulge in mawkish fawning upon "the Little Boy Jesus / Asleep on the hay" as see in Him our Goal, as see these feasts as prefigurations of the glory that is to come, that in Heaven we shall be united forever with the Lamb of God, "casting down [our] golden crowns" before Him.

The conclusion of the Liturgical Year, then, is not Stir-up Sunday, nor Christ the King (for, He reigns now, as He has for all ages as God, and as Incarnate Deity enthroned above since His Ascension, His return back to His Father in robes of glory, His Sacred Humanity: Christ the King ought not be an eschatological safe dream, but our motto for life in this age - Viva Cristo Rey!).

The End of the Liturgical Year is Candlemas, the Meeting with Christ in the Temple - when we too, as Simeon, can say Nunc dimittis.

How happy it is that Candlemas and Septuagesima Sunday so often overlap, as they do this year (2nd February and 31st January) - the Liturgical Year is the image, repeated for our edification and sanctification, until the Lord completes the cycle in us by our death, and in the Church by His Return in glory. When we are judged, though like Adam, and ancient Israel, and the new Israel, the Church in her members, we will admit many falls and backslidings, may we in our own persons attest that God's grace is stronger than human weakness: "And all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Excerpted from Psallites Sapienter

Farewell to the Alleluia

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Septuagesima is today inaugurated in the Roman Martyrology by the words: "Septuagesima Sunday, on which the canticle of the Lord, Alleluja, ceases to be said". On the Saturday preceding, the Roman Breviary notes that after the "Benedicamus" of Vespers two Alleluias are to be added, that thenceforth it is to be omitted till Easter, and in its place "Laus tibi Domine" is to be said at the beginning of the Office. Formerly the farewell to the Alleluia was quite solemn. In an Antiphonary of the Church of St. Cornelius at Compiègne we find two special antiphons.Spain had a short Office consisting of a hymn, chapter, antiphon, and sequence. Missals in Germany up to the fifteenth century had a beautiful sequence. In French churches they sang the hymn "Alleluia, dulce carmen" (Guéranger, IV, 14) which was well-known among the Anglo-Saxons (Rock, IV, 69). The "Te Deum" is not recited atMatins, except on feasts. The lessons of the first Nocturn are taken from Genesis, relating the fall and subsequent misery of man and thus giving a fit preparation for the Lenten season. In the Mass of Sunday and ferias the Gloria in Excelsis is entirely omitted. In all Masses a Tract is added to the Gradual.

From the website of the now-defunct Holy Trinity German parish in Boston:

The Depositio

As Septuagesima (Latin for "seventy") is seventy days before Easter, it typologically commemorates the seventy years of exile spent by the Jews in Babylon. As Psalm 136 attests, God's chosen people did not deem it fit to sing their joyous songs from Sion during the Babylonian exile, and neither do Catholics during theirs. The joyful "Alleluia" is thus laid to rest for seventy days until it rises again in the Easter Vigil. As mentioned elsewhere, this dismissal, or depositiio, of the Alleluia can take place formally in a special ceremony. After the Saturday office of None or at some point of the afternoon on the day before Septuagesima Sunday, the choir gathers in the church where it carries a plaque or banner bearing the word "Alleluia" through the church as it sings the touching hymn, "Alleluia, dulce carmen". It is then solemnly "buried" in some place in the church. In the Middle Ages this procession could become quite elaborate. Sometimes the "Alleluia" plaque would be in the shape of a coffin, while in parts of France, a straw man with the word "Alleluia" was even burned in effigy in the churchyard. A simpler ceremony based on the same principles, however, can easily be held in one's home or parish.

And finally, from Fr. Franz Xaver Weiser (as quoted on the Canberra TLM blog):

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. They were inspired by the sentiment that 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 the mouth, head and hand, before we leave him" [a reference to the Rationale divinorum Officiorum of William DURAND, or DURANDUS, Bishop of Mende, 1230-96].

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 in France. This custom also inspired some tender poems that were sung or recited during Vespers in honour of the sacred word. The best-known of these hymns is Allelúia, dulce carmen ("Alleluia, Song of Gladness"), composed by an unknown author of the tenth 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.



1. Alleluia dulce carmen,
Vox perennis gaudii,
Alleluia laus suavis
Est choris coelestibus,
Quam canunt Dei manentes
In domo per saecula.

2. Alleluia laeta mater
Concivis Jerusalem:
Alleluia vox tuorum
Civium gaudentium:
Exsules nos flere cogunt
Babylonis flumina.

3. Alleluia non meremur
In perenne psallere;
Alleluia vo reatus
Cogit intermittere;
Tempus instat quo peracta
Lugeamus crimina.

4. Unde laudando precamur
Te beata Trinitas,
Ut tuum nobis videre
Pascha des in aethere,
Quo tibi laeti canamus
Alleluia perpetim.

Words: Alleluyu dulce carmen, Anonymous Latin, 10th or 11th Century

1. Alleluia, song of sweetness,
voice of joy that cannot die;
alleluia is the anthem
ever raised by choirs on high;
in the house of God abiding
thus they sing eternally.

2. 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.

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

4. Therefore in our hymns we pray thee,
grant us, blessed Trinity,
at the last to keep thine Easter,
in our home beyond the sky,
there to thee for ever singing
alleluia joyfully.

© A Treasury of Christmas Carols

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