Praise God in His sanctuary.
Praise Him in His mighty heavens.
Praise Him for His powerful acts;
praise Him for His abundant greatness.
Praise Him with trumpet blast;
praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with tambourine and dance;
praise Him with flute and strings.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals;
praise Him with clashing cymbals.
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.
This Sunday marks a turning point in the church year. It is Transfiguration Sunday, and Wednesday will be Ash Wednesday. Typically services perform some kind of ceremony to “bury the Alleluia” involving the children of the congregation. (The mystery of burying a word for a season does not seem to confuse them.) This practice enriches and shapes our prayer and sense of discipline as we anticipate the coming of Easter and the return of the Alleluia.
The practice of refraining from using the word “Alleluia” goes back to at least the fifth century. It is a kind of “verbal fast” in which we let the word rest until Easter, when it bursts forth again with more joy and reverence because it has been absent. The word Alleluia comes to us from Hebrew—Hallelujah—which means “praise Yahweh.” It is a term of great joy. In the Hebrew Bible, it is a compound word, from hallelu, meaning “to praise joyously,” and yah, a shortened form of the unspoken name of God. “Hallelujah” is an active imperative, meaning it is a direction to the listener or congregation to sing tribute to the Lord.
This year of course will be different. Since all our worshiping will be online, consider burying the Alleluia as your family’s Lenten tradition this year. Print off and color the Alleluia above. Spend some time in reflection, then write out prayers for Lent on the reverse side. If your family chooses Lenten intentions, write them on the reverse side as well. Combine corporal and spiritual works of mercy in your intentions, rather than just “giving something up” for Lent. Then hide the Alleluia in a box or bury it some other way. During Lenten worship services, point out to your children places where the church service has been changed to pass up saying Alleluia. Prepare your children to rejoice emphatically on Easter Sunday morning, when the pastor chants a triple Alleluia before reading the Gospel, and congregation responds with a triple Alleluia.
The word Hallelujah has grown familiar in the secular world in the context of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” which has grown more and more popular. Maybe the composer really did find a “secret chord.” I have been surprised that this song has evoked such holy, prayerful responses in such varied settings. Many people have sung their own versions of it, adding verses to fit their particular stories. It has been quoted in movies and TV shows. Who would have guessed that Cohen, a world-weary entertainer, would have such insights into the meaning of a religious word? When he sings Hallelujah he opens up new facets in the concepts of giving joy, ecstatic love, grief, inspiration, perseverance, and praise. We’re broken human beings, all of us. We can all sing hallelujah, because what it comes from is being open and transparent before God and the world and saying, “This is how it is for me.” Sing some extra Alleluias now, to prepare your heart for Lent.
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
*Original words to the song as sung by Leonard Cohen