HE HEBREW WORD, “הללויה” or “Hallelujah,” is a word of unsurpassed joy. It is an acclamation of praise, thanksgiving and victory.
“Hallelujah” is really a two–word phrase meaning “Praise Yah.” It is a joyous and unabashed song of praise to God and appears many times in the Book of Psalms, most prominently in Psalms 111-117 and 145-150.
Untranslated by the early Christians, we have adopted the Hebrew word “Hallelujah” as our own. Using it again and again, most notably during Eastertide, we joyfully sing our praises for Christ’s triumph and victory over sin and death. Christ’s Sacrifice has become our Paschal meal. The tomb is empty. Alleluia! Alleluia!
However, this Sunday, (and for some on Tuesday at daily mass) we sing our final “Alleluias” as we prepare to begin our Lenten journey towards the Easter celebration of Christ’s glorious Resurrection. Likened to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon, the practice of “fasting” from singing or saying the word “Alleluia” began in some places perhaps as early as the fifth century. The popular practice of “burying the Alleluia” had its beginnings in a lay-led ritual, which included a solemn procession to the church cemetery with a scroll or even a coffin inscribed with the word “Alleluia.” The “Alleluia” was literally buried in the cemetery, leaving the people with the hope and anticipation of its Easter Sunday resurrection.
Where does that leave us this coming week during Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday? Affectionately known as “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is not merely one day, but a carnival season ending just before Ash Wednesday. “Fat Tuesday” is our last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. It is on this day that we express our last superlative praise of God by exclaiming “Alleluia.”
Just as on Mardi Gras we savor one final taste of indulgent sumptuousness, let us savor these last “Alleluias” as we would a last joyous meal with friends, confidants, family, and dear loved ones. Sing out and delight in this final sumptuous exuberance of God’s praise. Let its memory sustain us through the balance of this bleak winter; let its power strengthen us as we carry our own burdens and shoulder our particular crosses.
The hymn Alleluia, Song of Gladness (The Hymnal 1982, #122, 123; Words: Latin, 11th Cent.; trans. John Mason Neale) evokes the exile of the Israelites in Babylon as well as the fasting from singing “Alleluia” as we enter into Lent. Beginning with verse 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.
Alleluia though we cherish and would chant for evermore
Alleluia in our singing, let us for a while give o’er
As our Savior in his fasting pleasures of the world forbore.
In the final verse, we patiently anticipate singing “Alleluia” in our Easter joy:
Therefore in our hymns we pray thee, grant us, blessed Trinity,
At the last to keep thine Easter with thy faithful saints on high;
There to thee for ever singing alleluia joyfully.
After this Sunday, our Alleluia is buried for the next six Sundays, not to be sung again until the Great Vigil of Easter when we stay awake and keep watch for the Resurrection of our Savior, Christ the Lord.