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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Forbidden Word: Why the A-word is a Lenten Taboo

Imagine, if you will, a group of seminarians, gathered for prayer the evening after Ash Wednesday.  With Lenten penances in full swing, the band of young men chooses a hymn to begin their prayer with.  They begin to sing:  “All creatures of our God and king, Lift up your voices, let them ring…” As they approach the end of the second line, voices trail off, and looks of fear and embarrassment cross their faces as the chorus, filled with the seasonally-forbidden A-word (rhymes with Shmalleluia) approaches.  The voices peter out, everyone looks around guiltily, and the process of choosing a new hymn commences.
Eventually it dawned on this group of seminarians that the phrase "For-bid-den Word" has the same number of syllables as the A-word, and it thus permitted the singing of virtually any song!  Try it!
Recently I was approached by a colleague—a Lutheran pastor in Texas—who posed the following question:  Why are we forbidden to say the A-word during Lent, when the Gospel Acclamation “Praise to you” which is used effectively means the same thing?  The liturgical geek in me immediately went to work to find the answer because, off the top of my head, I didn’t know.  Upon reflection, the question is very well-put and I needed to satisfy my own curiosity.
Up until the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great, Alleluia was only ever sung at Easter and during the 40-day period following the Feast.  From the earliest days of the Church, then, Alleluia was always associated with a profound sense of joy.  As the centuries passed, the word began to creep into the rest of the liturgical year.  In fact, for several centuries in and around Rome, Alleluia was always proclaimed at funerals (a practice that was forbidden from at least the reforms of the Council of Trent until 1969).  However, that practice fell into disuse as more distinctions developed between the different liturgical seasons.  The Church began to observe a clearer separation between days of joyful feasting and days of sobriety and mourning.  These more somber liturgical days (those of Lent, those on which Requiem Masses were celebrated, etc.) saw the omission of the word Alleluia.
During penitential seasons, the Alleluia became replaced with a chant known as the Gradual and Tract, which were actually more ancient, being used prior to the Gospel before the widespread use of the Alleluia outside of Easter.  The reform of the liturgy in 1969, however, did not readopt the very ancient practice of the Gradual and Tract (at least from the 3rd century), but replacing it with a linguistic equivalent of the meaning of the word alleluia: “Laus tibi, Christe, rex aeternae gloriae” (Praise to you, Christ, king of eternal glory), which was borrowed from the ancient Divine Office.
The absence of the word alleluia is notable in Lent, as it should remind us that this is a time in which we do not express our Christian joy in the same way as we do throughout the rest of the year.  This season, while joyful because it orients us to the joy of Easter in a more perfect manner, is one built around the principles of sobriety and penance. It is not so much that we outrightly reject the Paschal joy of Alleluia, but rather defer it to its original and most ancient place: the great celebration of Easter, when it comes forth with Christ from the tomb in full force!
For those of you not overly-sensitive to the mention of the A-word during Lent, the following video is one of my favorite scenes from the ingenious Rowan Atkinson (aka, Mr. Bean), in which the Forbidden Word is all he actually knows of a rather popular hymn!  I laugh every time!

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