Music Notes - Burying the “A-word”
As you know, Ash Wednesday is next week - marking the beginning of the Lenten season. There will be plenty of talk about things that people “give up” or sacrifice during the season - chocolate, candy, alcohol - to name a few. Of course, with Valentine's Day landing on Ash Wednesday this year, I wonder if people may delay their sacrifice by a day so they can eat that box of chocolate they were just gifted. All kidding aside, many people in various faith traditions will observe some sort of fast during the forty days of the Lenten Season.
One thing we traditionally “give up” at church during the Lenten Season is using or singing the word alleluia - or as some call it, the “A-word.” Some churches, like the Presbyterian church I sang at in Washington, DC when I was in grad school, go so far as to “bury” the alleluia. They make it a part of the children’s sermon during the final Sunday of Epiphany - as the kids pantomime shoveling at the front of the church, collectively digging an imaginary hole, putting in their alleluias, and covering the hole back up. The children’s sermon on Easter morning reverses the entire process - much to the delight of the kids.
We have made it a tradition here at St. John’s to not sing hymns or music that use the “A-word” or include the word in the liturgy during Lent. But why? There is no specific doctrine or rubric that prescribes eliminating the use of alleluia during the church service in Lent. No one is cursing you or giving you seven years of bad luck because you accidentally let out an alleluia. Still, we fast from the use of the word during Lent.
It turns out that the omission of alleluia during Lent goes back at least to the fifth century in the western church. Based on the Hebrew word, hallelu yah, meaning “Praise Yahweh,” alleluia has been a word of great praise to God throughout the history of the church. The penitential character of the Lenten season coupled the association of alleluia with Easter led to the custom of intentionally omitting it from the liturgy during the season of Lent. During the Middle Ages in Babylon a custom was established to actually bid the “A-word” farewell. This is a tradition that we continue in our church to this day.
Therefore, this Sunday as you sing our closing hymn “Alleluia! sing to Jesus!” - which contains the “A-word” 10 times - remember that while we will say goodbye to the word and bury it for now, we will joyfully sing it again as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday - ALLELUIA!