Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding.

I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop...
It was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Burying the Alleluia


Traditionally it was on the eve of Septuagesima that there occurred the "Burial of the Alleluia." I suppose these days in the Novus Ordo it is something which might be, and indeed in some places is, done on Shrove Tuesday or possibly the last Sunday before Lent.

As Bishop William Durandus (1237-96), wrote in his commentary on the liturgy in 1286, “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.”

The custom goes back to at least the eleventh century in some form.

The depositio (discontinuance) of the Alleluia on the eve of Septuagesima,which initiated three weeks of "pre-Lent" at the end of the Epiphany Season, assumed in medieval times a solemn and emotional note of saying farewell to the beloved song. Although Pope Alexander II (1061-73) had ordered a very simple and sombre way of "deposing" the Alleluia, a variety of farewell customs developed and prevailed in many countries up to the sixteenth century. They were inspired by the sentiment that Bishop William Durandus voiced in his commentaries on the Divine Office in 1286: "We part from the Alleluia as from a beloved friend, whom we embrace many times and kiss on the mouth, head and hand, before we leave him."

The liturgical office on the eve of Septuagesima was performed in many churches with special solemnity, and alleluias were freely inserted in the sacred text, even to the number of twenty-eight final alleluias in the church of Auxerre in France. This custom also inspired some tender poems that were sung or recited during Vespers in honor of the sacred word. The best known of these hymns is, Alleluia, dulce carmen ("Alleluia, Song of Gladness"), composed by an unknown author of the tenth or eleventh century. It was translated into English by John Mason Neale in 1851:


Alleluia, song of gladness,
Voice of joy that cannot die;
Alleluia is the anthem
Ever dear to choirs on high;
In the house of God abiding
Thus they sing eternally.

Alleluia thou resoundest,
True Jerusalem and free;
Alleluia, joyful mother,
All thy children sing with thee;
But by Babylon’s sad waters
Mourning exiles now are we.

Alleluia we deserve not
Here to chant forevermore;
Alleluia our transgressions
Make us for a while give o’er;
For the holy time is coming
Bidding us our sins deplore.

Therefore in our hymns we pray Thee,
Grant us, blessèd Trinity,
At the last to keep Thine Easter
In our home beyond the sky;
There to Thee forever singing
Alleluia joyfully.

In some French churches the custom developed of allowing the congregation to take part in the celebration of a quasi-liturgical farewell ceremony. The clergy abstained from any role in this popular service, so it is rather like the services taken by the Boy-Bishops. Choirboys officiated in their stead at what was called "Burial of the Alleluia" performed the Saturday afternoon before Septuagesima Sunday. There is a description of it in the fifteenth-century statute book of the church of Toul:

"On Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday all choir boys gather in the sacristy during the prayer of the None, to prepare for the burial of the Alleluia. After the last Benedicamus [at the end of the service] they march in procession, with crosses, tapers, holy water and censers; and they carry a coffin, as in a funeral. Thus they proceed through the aisle, moaning and mourning, until they reach the cloister. There they bury the coffin; they sprinkle it with holy water and incense it; whereupon they return to the sacristy by the same way."

In Paris, a straw figure bearing in golden letters the inscription "Alleluia" was carried out of the choir at the end of the service and burned in the church yard.

With the exception of these quaint ceremonies, however, the farewell to Alleluia in most countries was an appropriate addition to the official ceremonies of the liturgy. The special texts (hymns, responsories, antiphons) used on that occasion were taken mostly from Holy Scripture, and are filled with pious sentiments of devotion.

Thus the Alleluia is sung for the last time and not heard again until it suddenly bursts into glory during the Mass of the Easter Vigil when the celebrant intones this sacred word after the Epistle, repeating it three times, as a jubilant herald of the Resurrection of Christ.

Adapted from Handbook of Christian Feasts & Customs by Francis X. Weiser (Harcourt 1958)


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