Seasoned Anglicans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Orthodox, and other liturgical Christians are familiar with the practice of suppressing the word “alleluia” during the season of Lent, but oftentimes we forget just why we do this.
Halleluia is a Hebrew composite word: “hallelu” is the verb “praise” and “yah” is short for Yahweh, God’s name. Together it is translated into English “praise the Lord!” Because Latin doesn’t have the letter H in it, Western Christianity has tended toward the pronunciation “alleluia” instead.
The expression “Alleluia” is used throughout the year in various parts of the liturgy:
- In some antiphons in Morning Prayer for special occasions
- At the breaking (“fraction”) of the bread at Holy Communion
- Several hymns and songs use the word alleluia
Alleluia is emphasized during Eastertide. In addition to its usual appearances, it gains additional uses throughout that joyous season:
- Added to the closing Grace/Blessing in Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Midday Prayer
- Added three times to an antiphon in Compline
- In the Opening Acclamation for the service of Holy Communion
- Added to the Dismissal dialogue at the end of the Communion service
- Many Easter hymns heavily feature the word alleluia
The Burial Service, too, is rife with Alleluia’s, evoking the Easter theme regardless of the time of year the funeral is being held.
Most famously, the word alleluia is suppressed during Lent (and in the traditional calendar, also during the Pre-Lent season). This is no arbitrary act of the Word Police, but an intentional feature of the annual liturgy of the Church. Alleluia, being a Hebrew term, automatically carries a special ethos – because it isn’t native to our own language(s), it has a quality to it that carries different weight than its perfectly accurate translation, “praise the Lord.” By suppressing its use during the season of Lent, and using it in abundance during the season of Easter, we dramatize the liturgy in a subtle way: emphasizing the somberness of Lent and the joyfulness of Easter.
To highlight the radical shifts of its suppression before Lent and its restoration at the Easter Vigil, various traditions have arisen. Some churches have a plaque that reads “alleluia” which they carry out of the church and bury in the yard on the last day before Lent. During the Easter Vigil, when the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is made, it is repeated three times, with multiple cries of “alleluia” accompanying it. Visually and audibly, this simple word has been transformed into a subtle proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord!