BY RORY COONEY
It strikes me, this year, that though I try to maintain the practice of figuratively “burying the Alleluia” on the Sunday and (now) the Tuesday morning before Ash Wednesday, I’ve never actually put into words for myself why we ought to notice it or why it is important enough that, through the changes of the Second Vatican Council, it survived in liturgical practice in Western Catholicism, even though in the Eastern church, the Alleluia continues to be sung through Lent. I came up with three thoughts we might ponder while we are not singing the Alleluia. (After Mass, of course … don’t be distracted from the homily!)
1. Remembering. Years ago, Walter Brueggeman, in his book, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology, reminded us that when we read and pray scripture, especial- ly in the psalms, we should keep in mind that in Israel, there was often too-close a connection between the court, which ruled Israel in the world, and the Temple, which preserved the presence of God and the memory that it is the just and merciful God who is the only true king of Israel. It is difficult to tell in the psalms just who is being enthroned and worshipped: the king or God? It was the job of the priestly class (and when they failed, the prophets) to be sure those lines were neatly drawn. Sometimes, as in Psalm 150, the line is completely obscured. It seems to be a litany of Alleluia! Praise the Lord in the temple! Praise him in the sky! Praise him with all your instruments!,” on and on without ever saying why? Other psalms, even some Hallel psalms (psalms with the words Hallelu Yah in them, “Praise the Lord”), are more deliberate. Psalm 146 is a good balance to Psalm 150. It encourages us to Hallelujah because God is always faithful, is just to the oppressed, gives food to the hungry and so on. This “doxology” in the prayer is a reminder to the king that God is in charge and that the king should act like God and “give bread to the hungry” and “set prisoners free.” So the first thing we could do when we miss singing the Alleluia is remember why we sing it in the first place: to help us remember why we should rejoice always. It’s not that the status quo is good; it’s that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God has been good and faithful in the past, and will continue to be into the future.
2. Solidarity with those who live without an Alleluia. There continues to be a danger, there is for me, anyway, that my Alleluia is a word of worship of an idol, of a god who props up the prosperity and power of the rich and powerful (I include myself in this number when speaking about the world as a whole.) Alleluia in our worship as it announces the gospel and peppers our music can be a real cheerleader’s “RAH!!” for the First World. So, on one level, fasting from the Alleluia during Lent gives an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the poor, the persecuted and the hopeless. The number of these people, our brothers and
sisters in Christ, beloved children of the same Father, is nearly one in two in the world. Nearly one in four live in extreme poverty, on less than the equivalent of $1.25 a day. When we sing “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” in other words, we’re not singing about ourselves. Silencing the Alleluia for a while can help us remember that. At the same time, it can help us to remember those who are not living an “Easter” existence, even in a temporary sense. Brutally knocked down by loss of security, by sickness or death, many people whom we know have lost the Alleluia in their heart. Again, the silencing of the Alleluia for Lent can help us remember them and act on their behalf if we choose to do so mindfully.
3. “If Christ is not risen, our faith is empty.” Finally, and certainly not least among these three, is the opportunity to reflect on what the world might be like if Jesus of Nazareth were just a rabble-rousing nationalist preacher and had been forgotten after enduring the sentence of capital punishment executed upon him by the Roman governor. What if God had not intervened, had left us to wonder, had not snatched Jesus from the grave and let the authority of his life given us a shining option to the normalcy of violence and “might makes right?” Christians hear and pray and sing Alleluia as our Easter song, as the anthem of resurrection and the proclamation that Christ is alive in the life and mission of the Church. Not singing the Alleluia for the duration of Lent gives us an opportunity to imagine the chaos of a world without the Sermon on the Mount, without the Good Shepherd and the Good Samaritan, without the good news of a God-who-is-with-us, a loving Parent for all, who calls us beloved children. It’s a bleak prospect, a dystopia in which love is even more fragile than now, without the hope that every act of self-giving imitates the One whose love formed the cosmos.
One mystic speaks of the Alleluia as “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 … 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.” Perhaps Alleluia is the song of the reign of God, and during Lent, we ponder the “not yet” of God’s reign by fore- going celebrating the “already.” Preface 1 for Lent, in the previous translation, included the words, “Each year, you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.” During these weeks when we “fast” from singing or even saying the word Alleluia during our liturgical prayer, maybe some of these thoughts can help us find a place to take that sense of displacement-maybe even loss-to find an even greater joy when the Alleluia returns to the liturgy at the Easter Vigil.