Based on the Hebrew word, hallelu yah, meaning “Praise the Lord,” alleluia has been a word of great praise to God in the life of the church and was prominent in early Christian liturgies. Because of the reflective, penitential character of the season of Lent in the Western church, however, singing or saying the word "alleluia" has historically been set aside during Lent's 40 days. This period of individual and congregational reflection on our faith and life in Christ suggests that the joyful nature of alleluia is more appropriately reserved for our Easter celebrations when it is given full and jubilant voice.
Having been raised in a mainline protestant congregation, I don't recall our worshipping community at St. Paul's United Church of Christ [in Oakville] engaging in teaching moments about the season preceding Easter. And then I came to Union Avenue Christian Church. I remember my first season of Lent at Union Avenue when someone shared an intriguing children's moment in which he or she explained that we were putting away any reference to alleluia or hallelujah during the holy season leading up to Easter. One of the children was asked to "hide" the word alleluia, which had been written on a a piece of cardboard, someplace in the sanctuary. On Easter morning, we were told, we would find it and bring it back into our worship celebration.
The omission of alleluia from worship during Lent goes back at least to the fifth century in the western church. The custom of actually bidding it farewell, however, developed in the Middle Ages. The hymn "Alleluia, song of gladness" contains a translation of an 11th century Latin text that compares an alleluia-less Lent to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The text then anticipates the joy of Easter when glad alleluias will return in joyous splendor.
If you've wondered why the "Gloria" is not being sung following our opening prayer or why we aren't singing the "Alleluia" during communion, now you know. We will reintroduce these traditions into worship on Easter Sunday, including the joyful, celebratory singing of the Handel's Hallelujah Chorus as our postlude.