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Catholic Activity: Farewell to Alleluia



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Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J. describes the traditions related to ceasing using Alleluia during Lent.


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.12 According to the regulation of Pope Alexander II (1073) the Alleluia is sung twice after the prayers of the Divine Office,13 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.

USAGE OF THE WORD — Saint John the Evangelist mentioned alleluia in his Apocalypse (19, 1-6), 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 Isidore of Seville (636) mentioned in his writings.14 He explains this 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 that the faithful of his time used to insert many alleluias in their private devotions.15 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.16

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!"17 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.18 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 429.19

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. It used to be 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.20 The Eastern Churches have preserved this custom in their Masses for the dead up to now.

FAREWELL CUSTOMS — 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.21 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."22

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 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.23

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.24

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.

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.

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.26

12 Pope Gregory I prescribed the use of Alleluia on all days except from Septuagesima to Easter. See DACL, 15.1 (1950), 1264f.
13 BR, Sabbato ante Septuages., ad Vesp.
14 De eccles. offic., I, 13; PL, 83, 750.
15 Liber de Orat., 27; PL, 1, 1194.
16 Ad Marcell. epist., 46; PL, 22, 491.
17 De cant. novo, 2; PL, 50, 680.
18 Epist. Liber II, 10; PL, 58, 488.
19 Hist. Gentis Anglor. I, 20; PL, 95, 49.
20 Saint Jerome, De morte Fabiolae, ep. 77; PL, 22, 697.
21 H. Leclercq, Le Départ de l''Alleluia, DACL, 15.2 (1958), 2178 ff.; M. B. Hellriegl, "Alleluia, Farewell," OF, 19 (1945), 97 ff.
22 Dur., VI, 24, 18.
23 HPEC, hymn 54.
24 Young, I, 552 (Latin text).
25 C. Blume, Des Alleluia Leben, Begräbnis urul Auferstehung, StML, 52 (1897), 429 (Latin text).
26 P. Botz, "Alleluia: Our Easter Song," OF, 20 (1946), 241 ff.

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958