The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

Eve of Septuagesima—Suspension of the "Alleluia"

Alleluia The calendar of the liturgical year will soon bring us to the commemoration of the Passion and Resurrection of our Redeemer; we are but nine weeks from these solemnities. It is time for the Christian to be preparing his soul for a fresh visit from his Savior; a visit even more sacred and more important than that He so mercifully paid us at His Birth.

Our Holy Mother the Church knows how necessary it is for Her to rouse our hearts from their lethargy, and give them an active tendency towards the things of God. On this day, the eve of Septuagesima, She uses a powerful means for infusing Her own spirit into the minds of Her children. She takes the song of Heaven away from us: She forbids our further uttering that Alleluia, which is so dear to us, as giving us a fellowship with the choirs of Angels, who are forever repeating it. How is it that we poor mortals, sinners, and exiles on earth, have dared to become so familiar with this hymn of a better land? It is true, our Emmanuel, Who established peace between God and men, brought it us from Heaven on the glad night of His Birth; and we have had the courage to repeat it after the Angels, and shall chant it with renewed enthusiasm when we reach our Easter. But to sing the Alleluia worthily, we must have our hearts set on the country whence it came. It is not a mere word, nor a profane unmeaning melody; it is the song that recalls the land we are banished from, it is the sweet sigh of the soul longing to be at home.

The word Alleluia signifies praise God: but it says much more than this, and says it as no other word or words could. The Church is not going to interrupt Her giving praise to God during these nine weeks. She will replace this Heaven-lent word by a formula also expressive of praise: Praise be to Thee, O Lord, King of eternal glory! But this is the language of earth; whereas Alleluia was sent us from Heaven. "Alleluia," says the devout Abbot Rupert, "is like a stranger amidst our other words. Its mysterious beauty is as though a drop of Heaven’s overflowing joy had fallen down on our earth. The patriarchs and prophets relished it, and then the Holy Ghost put it on the lips of the Apostles, from whom it flowed even to us. It signifies the eternal feast of the Angels and Saints, which consists in their endless praise of God, and in ceaselessly singing their ever new admiration of the beauty of the God on Whose Face they are to gaze for everlasting ages. This mortal life of ours can in no wise attain such bliss as this. But to know where it is to be found, and to have a foretaste of it by the happiness of hope, and to hunger and thirst for what we thus taste, this is the perfection of saints here below. For this reason, the word Alleluia has not been translated; it has been left in its original Hebrew, as a stranger to tell us that there is a joy in his native land, which could not dwell in ours: he has come among us to signify, rather than to express that joy."

During the Season of Septuagesima, we have to gain a clear knowledge of the miseries of our banishment, under pain of being left forever in this tyrant Babylon. It was, therefore, necessary that we should be put on our guard against the allurements of our place of exile. It is with this view that the Church, taking pity on our blindness and our dangers, gives us this solemn warning. By taking from us our Alleluia, She virtually tells us that our lips must first be cleansed, before they may again be permitted to utter this word of Angels and Saints; and that our hearts, defiled as they are by sin and attachment to earthly things, must be purified by repentance. She is going to put before our eyes the sad spectacle of the fall of our first parents, that dire event whence came all our woes, and our need of Redemption. This tender Mother weeps over us, and would have us weep with Her.

Let us, then, comply with the law She thus imposes upon us. If spiritual joy is thus taken away from us, what are we to think of the frivolous amusements of the world? And if vanities and follies are insults to the spirit of Septuagesima, would not sin be an intolerable outrage on that same spirit? We have been too long the slaves of this tyrant. Our Savior is soon to appear, bearing His Cross; and His sacrifice is to restore fallen man to all his rights. Surely, we can never allow that Precious Blood to fall uselessly on our souls, as the morning dew that rains on the parched sands of a desert! Let us with humble hearts confess that we are sinners, and, like the publican of the Gospel, who dared not so much as to raise up his eyes, let us acknowledge that it is only right that we should be forbidden, at least for a few weeks, those divine songs of joy, with which our guilty lips had become too familiar; and that we should interrupt those sentiments of presumptuous confidence which prevented our hearts from having the holy fear of God.

Let us see how keenly this interruption of the word of heavenly joy was felt by Christians of those ages, when Faith was the grand ruling principle, not only with society at large, but with each individual.

The farewell to Alleluia, in the Middle Ages, varied in the different Churches. Here, it was an affectionate enthusiasm, speaking the beauty of the celestial word; there, it was a heart-felt regret at the departure of the much-loved companion of all their prayers.

We begin with two antiphons, which would seem to be of Roman origin. We find them in the Antiphonarium of St. Cornelius of Compiegne, published by Dom Denys de Sainte Marthe. They are a farewell to Alleluia made by our Catholic forefathers in the 9th century; they express, too, the hope of its coming back, as soon as the Resurrection of Jesus shall have brightened up the firmament of His Church:

May the good Angel of the Lord accompany, thee, Alleluia, and give thee a good journey, that thou mayest come back to us in joy, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Alleluia, abide with us today, and tomorrow thou shalt set forth, Alleluia; and when the day shall have risen thou shalt proceed on thy way, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

The Gothic Church of Spain thus saluted the Alleluia, on the eve of its interruption. We merely make a selection from what is almost a complete Office:

Thou shalt go, Alleluia; thy journey shall be prosperous, Alleluia; and again come back to us with joy, Alleluia. For they shall bear thee up in their hands, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And again come back to us with joy, Alleluia.

May the Lord’s good Angel go with thee, Alleluia; and prepare all good things for thy journey. And again come back to us with joy, Alleluia.

The Churches of Germany, in the Middle Ages, expressed their farewell to the Alleluia in a fine sequence, which was to be found in all their Missals up to the 15th century. It began thus:

Let us all now sing the melodious Alleluia. In praise of the eternal King, let this assembly give forth Alleluia. And let the heavenly choirs loudly chant Alleluia.

Let the choir of the blessed sing in the land of Paradise, Alleluia. Nay, let the bright stars hymn one loud Alleluia.

Fleet clouds, swift winds, flashing lightning, and pealing thunder, let all unite in a sweet Alleluia.

Waves and billows, showers and storms, tempest and calm, heat, cold, snow, frost, woods and groves, let them tell their Alleluia.

And ye countless birds, sing the praises of your Maker with an Alleluia.

The Churches of France, in the 13th century, and long even after that, used to sing in Vespers of the Saturday before Septuagesima the following beautiful hymn:

The sweet Alleluia-song, the word of endless joy, in the melody of Heaven’s choir, chanted by them that dwell forever in the House of God.

O joyful Mother, O Jerusalem our city, Alleluia is the language of thy happy citizens. The rivers of Babylon, where we poor exiles live, force us to weep.

We are unworthy to sing a ceaseless Alleluia. Our sins bid us interrupt our Alleluia. The time is at hand when it behooves us to bewail our crimes.

We, therefore, beseech Thee whilst we praise Thee, O Blessed Trinity, that Thou grant us to come to that Easter of Heaven, where we shall sing to Thee our joyful everlasting Alleluia. Amen.

In the present form of the Liturgy, the farewell to Alleluia is more simple. The Church, at the conclusion of Saturday’s Vespers, repeats the mysterious word four times, just as She does during Easter week:

Benedicamus Domino, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Deo Gratias, Alleluia, Alleluia.

This song of Heaven, then, is taken from us. It will return, when the triumph of Jesus’ Resurrection is proclaimed upon our earth.

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