The Absent Alleluia

One of my first experiences of the Lenten season was when my college choir sang at a liturgical church on our annual tour. Changes to the concert order were common, but that night, our director surprised us by removing a few of our favorite pieces.

“We’ve been asked not to sing the word alleluia tonight,” she explained. In this church’s observance of Lent, they didn’t say alleluia until Easter morning. That evening, our music proclaimed the truth of the gospel without the alleluias and resurrection songs, in a way uniquely fitted to the season.

This particular tradition surrounding Lent is common in the church historic, but for those of us from less liturgical backgrounds, it comes as a surprise. My own first impulse was to ask if we lose something by not proclaiming the joyous alleluias of Easter during this season. After all, we know the end of the story. Why would we temper our alleluias, the sound overflowing from the joyous Christian’s heart?

It can be helpful because it orients us within the story of Scripture. Traditions like choosing not to sing alleluia are ways we leave the telling of the story unfinished, declaring that the full consummation of our redemption is still to come. Sometimes we can see the purpose of tradition more clearly when looking at someone else’s, but we do the same thing in other ways in our own experience. We observe a Good Friday service before an Easter service, and we wait to drape the cross in white until Easter Sunday.

I would argue that tradition could be considered a form of art, but we see this in formal arts as well. No one questions the placement of the Amen chorus at the end of Handel’s Messiah; the Amen belongs at the end of the story and would not fit after a meditation on the atoning death of Christ, such as And With His Stripes. The absence of amen at a profound point such as this communicates that redemption did not end at the cross. It is in the same way that our liturgical brothers and sisters leave thealleluia out of their worship to remind them of our place in an unfinished story.

These traditions declare that we live in the tension between kingdom come and kingdom coming. Christ has risen, and indeed, we say alleluia. Yet we are sinful creatures in a fallen world, and the death that we know is vanquished still stings our present reality. Traditionally, Lent is a season of focusing on our need for a Savior. The lack of alleluia is in essence a way to proclaim need for the resurrection, just as our fast from food proclaims that we need to feast on the body of Jesus Christ.

Our groaning for resurrection, our unfinished story and their artistic expression are not realities isolated to the liturgical church. We will experience this keenly in a few weeks at our Good Friday service. There, we reflect on the death of Jesus Christ, and we intentionally wait until Easter Sunday to complete the story and proclaim His resurrection. We leave in silence, and the absence of speech communicates the weight of our sin and the tension of our current reality in a way that words never could.