St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Sing alleluia! (Feb 18/June 19/Oct 19)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the use of the 'Alleluia', effectively a wordly sound of praise that often promoted long melismatic sections of chant in the seasons to which it is proper, making it all the more missed at those times of the year when it is not used.
Caput XV: Alleluia Quibus Temporibus Dicatur

A Sancto Pascha usque Pentecosten sine intermissione dicatur Alleluia, tarn in psalmis quam in responsoriis. A Pentecoste autem usque caput Quadragesimae omnibus noctibus cum sex posterioribus psalmis tantum ad Nocturnes dicatur. Omni vero Dominica extra Quadragesimam Cantica, Matutini, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nonaque cum Alleluia dicantur; Vespera vero jam antiphona. Responsoria vero numquam dicantur cum Alleluia, nisi a Pascha usque Pentecosten.

Chapter 15: At what season the alleluia is to be said

FROM the sacred feast of Easter until Pentecost, let Alleluia be said always both with the psalms and with the responsories. From Pentecost until the beginning of Lent, let it be said every night at Matins with the second six psalms only. On every Sunday out of Lent, let Alleluia be said with the canticles of Matins, and with the psalms of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, and None; but let Vespers then have an antiphon. The responsories are never to be said with Alleluia, except from Easter to Pentecost.


St Benedict’s liturgical seasons described in this chapter varies, of course from current practice.

In part, that’s because he wrote the Rule before St Gregory and others legislated for the ‘burial’ of the Alleluia from Septuagesima until the Easter Vigil.

In part though, it is because instead of the three week pre-Lent of the Roman Rite, monastic Lent actually started, traditionally at least, back in November if one follows the Rule’s fasting regime. For this reason presumably, Benedictines did not actually adopt Septuagesima into the calendar until quite late, in the twelfth century according to Dom Gueranger, and then only by Papal order.

Nonetheless, the spirituality behind St Benedict's injunction is worth exploring.  The word Alleluia is a rare example of a Hebrew word (technically two separate words) used as an expression of praise to God being preserved, untranslated, into the liturgy as an expression of joy. It literally means ‘praise Yah[weh]’.

In the Old Testament it appears in the psalter (Psalm 104 and 150, and in the titles for several psalms) and in the Book of Tobit. It appears only in one place in the New Testament, namely Revelation 19. Yet it is undoubtedly that chapter that earns the word its privileged place in the liturgy, since Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy of the wedding feast of the lamb that we both anticipate and echo:

“After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants." Once more they cried, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" And from the throne came a voice crying, "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great." Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready….”

Dom Delatte, in his classic commentary on the Rule, draws particular attention to that the use of the Alleluia ‘sine intermissione’ (without interruption), in contrast to its regulated use the rest of the year. The Alleluia, in other words, reminds us each day, especially on Sundays, and above all during Eastertide as St Benedict specifies, of the joy of the Resurrection.

But its absence during Lent, and indeed, its careful regulation also remind us of what Pope Benedict XVI has called the ‘already and not yet’ state of the world before the Second Coming. Many liturgists and theologians at the more liberal end of the spectrum argue, as Fr Robert Taft does in his book on the history of the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, that everything in salvation has already been fulfilled, thus Christian worship is not about us seeking to contact God or to implore his help, but is the response of the ‘already saved’.

Traditionalists will generally be more inclined towards Pope Benedict XVI’s position, expounded in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (written before his election), that while Christian worship differs from that of the Old Testament in being open to heaven, we are still in a state of transition, the time of dawn when darkness and light intermingle, an intermediate time and space between the Old Temple sacrifices and the perfect worship of heaven. Without the Resurrection, we cannot enter heaven; but we have not ourselves entered it yet!

The presence and absence of the Alleluias in the liturgy serve, then, to remind us of the idea that our salvation is still yet to be fully realized, but must be constantly worked for with the aid of grace, using the 'tools of good works' set out in the Rule.

For the next part in this series, click here.

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