Sunday, February 14, 2010

Burying the Alleluia: Burning Strawmen, Mourning Choirboys

For those of our readers who are celebrating according to the 1970 calendar, today is the last Sunday when you can sing your Alleluias before the violet of Lent comes closing in (literally and figuratively, circumdederunt me gemitus mortis). For those of us who are in the Pre-Lent season of the Extraordinary Form (like I was this morning at a very violet, very early Low Mass), this decisive threshhold came at First Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, some weeks ago, where two Alleluias are added at the dismissal, and then it is unheard until the great Paschal vigil. There have been numerous ways--solemn, moving, or sometimes a bit silly, though justifiably so given the spirit of Carnival that has been historically in the air during this time of year, for good or ill--to bid farewell to this glorious word. Certainly I remember during my days at Notre Dame we'd try to cram in as many Alleluias into the hymns for mass that day. Our medieval forefathers commemorated this event with their age's straightforward love of elaboration.

Pope Alexander II had decreed, with the usual Roman sobriety, that a simple ceremony mark this event, called the depositio or dismissal of the Alleluia, but the rest of Europe, with its usual medieval liturgical extravagance, ignored him. Special antiphons marked this event in some places, as well as the singing of the hymn Alleluia, Dulce Carmen. At Auxerre twenty-eight separate Alleluias were troped into the mass text. A procession, with the word Alleluia inscribed on a banner or plaque, might be conducted round the church, with the Alleluia inscription solemnly entombed at the end, the plaque sometimes having the shape of a coffin. In some parts of France, the Alleluia might even be burned in effigy in the churchyard!

It appears the main officiants in this rite were the choirboys, and the event appears to have had that mingled sense of theraputic horseplay and instructive, imitative solemnity that the medievals so excelled in invoking in this and similar ceremonies like that of the boy bishop. (Occasionally, of course, this careful balance might simply cross the line into accidental impiety, as in the case of the frequently-denounced Mass of the Asses, Drunkards and Gamblers that was celebrated around the beginning of January, and the subject of abuses that make our own era's clown liturgies look like solemn high mass at Brompton Oratory).

Such extraliturgical events are reminders of the importance of time to our spiritual life, the infinite variety and gratefulness granted by its periods of plenty and privation. Alleluia is just a word, after all, some might say, and God will not strike us down if we sing it in the depths of Lent. Certainly it is no sin. But such legalism obscures the value of such dismissals and renunciations in shaping our interior life. Without seasons, without time, despite what we might tell ourselves we do not make ourselves eternal like God--we simply fall into the memoryless void of dumb animals.

In some ways, I ought to have posted this some weeks ago, given, after having experienced my first full pre-Lent season at a Tridentine parish, there is great value in this slow, careful preparation for our forty days in the desert with Christ. (Its placement at First Vespers also reminds us that there is, yes, a liturgical life outside of mass.) Yet, for many of us, today is our last day to hear the good news that is Alleluia, and for those readers, I say, be sure to enjoy it! I hope you have been able to give our good friend a proper send-off: Alleluia, Alleluia, song of sweetness, voice of joy that cannot die.

For more information on this custom, this post at Rorate Coeli may be of interest. Catholic parents may also like to see some suggestions here on incorporating these customs into your household--children, after all, can be taught more easily than adults that such timely little acts of sacred dramatization can have a place in one's life at all ages, without the self-consciousness that we adults are burdened with in this age of pseudo-irony.

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