What does “burying the alleluia” mean?

On this Ash Wednesday, I wanted to talk about the practice of some churches of “burying the alleluia” during the season of Lent. Since Middletown UMC doesn’t practice this, it may be a tradition with which some of us are less familiar. Essentially, when a church “buries” or “hides” the Alleluia, they avoid using the word in their music and their liturgy during the Lenten season. And it starts to make some sense if we ask ourselves the question: Should our praise and prayer be the same during Lent and on the Sundays of Lent as they are in the rest of the year?

I think the answer is, well, yes and no. Lent is a season of reflection and abstention, but it does not mean we need to morosely plod along for six weeks as if we were at a funeral. In fact, the Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days of Easter; rather, they are considered “Little Easters” within the season. That’s why the Sundays during Lent are named as “Sundays IN Lent” rather than “Sundays OF Lent.”

And yet, altering our Sunday worship practice during this season can enrich and shape our prayer and our sense of discipline as we anticipate Easter Sunday. Abstaining from Alleluia is a kind of fasting from “ecstasy” and ecstatic praise, letting the word lie dormant for six weeks before we again burst out in joyful and ecstatic affirmation of the Resurrection. When we retire something familiar, recovering its use has a way of making it “new” for us. It has a way of giving emphasis to what precedes and follows it. Taking a rest from something gives shape and rhythm to life, to worship, to relationships – even to our relationship with God.

Unlike some denominations, our United Methodist worship resources do not call for this practice, and do not offer directions for doing so. However, there is a long tradition within more formal liturgical United Methodist congregations for suspending the use of Alleluia from either the Last Sunday after Epiphany or Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) until the first service of Easter. Some churches dig a hole in the ground and make the burying literal; others get children involved in the process, having them yell “Alleluia” and closing a box where it is trapped within, and bringing that box back out on Easter morning to release the Alleluia.

MUMC, like many other churches, will not officially “bury” the alleluia during the Lenten season this year. But whether or not a church observes this practice, what’s ultimately important is our reflection on that earlier question: how should our prayer and praise change during Lent, to reflect the changes we are making in our hearts as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter?

(Some of the background of UMC practices was found on umcdiscipleship.org.)

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