Lent is sneaking up on us. Yesterday Fr Bishop unaccountably processed up the aisle wearing the purple cope. And what do you know, if it wasn't Septuagesima Sunday: we have two and a half weeks until Ash Wednesday and Lent.
With Septuagesima a sudden change of mood occurs in the liturgy. One indication of this change is the disappearance of an acclamation from the Church's official prayers and chants. We children of a generation weak in faith do not notice it, but the faithful of the Middle Ages felt it keenly: the Alleluia is discontinued and will not be heard again until Holy Saturday.
During holy Mass the divine King, as He makes His solemn entrance at the Gospel, will no longer be greeted with a festive Alleluia. Neither will the eight canonical hours of the day be introduced by a joyous Alleluia; in its place we sing or say, "Praise be to You, O Lord, king of everlasting glory!" Certainly this is a beautiful greeting; nevertheless it is a substitute, one, however, which allows us to divine what the Church means by the acclamation it replaces.
What is meant by "Alleluia"? The expression comes from the Hebrew Hallelu-Yah and means "Praise Yahweh (God)." But even in the Old Testament it had already lost its literal meaning and had become a cry of joy. In the Book of Tobias we read, "In the streets (of the heavenly Jerusalem) Alleluia is sung" (Tob. 13:22). In this sense the first Christians received the word and used it as a song of joy, of heaven, and of resurrection. It is imbedded in the oldest strata of the liturgy; centuries pass by as it rises from the lips of Christians, and it will continue to be sung until the end of time, and then forever in the heavenly Jerusalem. The seer of the Apocalypse heard the triumphal song of "Alleluia resounding as the rushing of many waters, as the rolling of mighty thunder" (Apoc. 19:6).
In the first days of Christianity the Alleluia was used as a private ejaculatory prayer. The faithful prayed it at home, farmers behind the plow, craftsmen in their workshops. Sailors sang, "Let us begin our rowing song: Alleluia," and for Christian soldiers it served as a battle cry. With "Alleluia, the Lord is risen!" the early Christians greeted each other on Easter morning. Even the dead were buried to the strains of Alleluia. What faith, what hope in resurrection underlies an Alleluia spoken at an open grave.
But the setting par excellence for the Alleluia is the liturgy. Until the time of St. Gregory the Great the Alleluia was restricted to Easter, when it served as the chief resurrection acclamation. At the present time it accompanies the believing soul through the whole year and stamps Christian life with the seal of joy, of resurrection, and of confidence in victory. The Church sings or says it repeatedly, e.g., at the beginning of each hour of prayer in the Office (eight times a day), and as a prelude to the Gospel at holy Mass. The latter instance, which may be likened to the cry of a herald at Christ's entrance for the Gospel, is numbered among the richest and finest choral hymns in the Roman liturgy.
Only in Pre-Lent and Lent, seasons devoted to penance for sin, does the Church refrain from voicing this cry of jubilation; not without emotion does she discontinue a practice to which her heart is so deeply attached. As to a dear friend Mother Church bids farewell to her beloved Alleluia on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday, when at the end of Vespers the acclamation is sung twice after the Benedicamus Domino and the choir responds with its twofold repetition following the Deo gratias.
In past centuries Pre-Lent was compared to the seventy-year captivity of the Jews and regarded as a time of suffering for sin. Durandus, a medieval liturgist, says, "We desist from saying Alleluia, the song chanted by angels, because we have been excluded from the company of the angels on account of Adam's sin. In the Babylon of our earthly life we sit by the streams, weeping as we remember Sion. For as the children of Israel in an alien land hung their harps upon the willows, so we too must forget the Alleluia song in the season of sadness, of penance, and bitterness of heart." (See Ps. 136, "By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept. . . .") In some churches considerable ceremony accompanied the final Alleluia. Durandus tells us, "We parted from it as from a dear friend, one whom we embrace and kiss on lips, brow, and hand many times before he leaves on an extended journey."
Today, at first Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, we sing the Alleluia for the last time. May its message remain impressed indelibly upon our hearts — we are a risen, a heavenly, a joyful people. Since baptism we are a risen race — never again allow yourself to die through sin. We are citizens of heaven; our feet touch the earth, but our hearts are with Christ on high, "Your conversation is in heaven." The mark of a genuine Christian life is a cheerful spirit. Like the sun a Christian radiates light and warmth, life and joy. Let us make real effort to be cheerful and joyful; ill-humor and bad temper must never mar our conduct. With joy in our hearts we should bring joy to others. The Church's daily Alleluia preaches this sermon.
That's from volume II of Dr Parsch's The Church's Year of Grace.