No alleluias and lots of purple and ashes

By | February 17, 2010


40 days

Lent developed out of Easter, which is the first of all Christian holidays.

For early Christians, Easter was celebrated every Sunday. In preparing to celebrate “the Lord’s Day,” people would fast from Friday to Sunday. They did this in memory of the time, traditionally 40 hours, that Jesus lay in the tomb.

When Easter became an annual celebration, its Vigil became the time when new members of the church were baptized. Before they were initiated into the sacraments, these catechumens underwent a time of instruction. This period of preparation became 40 days in length, patterned on the 40 days the Lord spent in the desert.

As time went on, other Christians wished to join in this time of preparation and purification, and the penitential season of Lent developed.


The practice of covering one’s self with ashes is an ancient symbol of sorrow and purification in many cultures. There are several instances in the Old Testament where people used ashes and dust (efer and afar in Hebrew) to symbolize penance, mourning and humiliation. (See Jer 6:26 or Job 2:8.) In the early church, penitents dressed in sackcloth and covered themselves with ashes.

The ashes for Ash Wednesday come from burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. In early days of the church, penitents would enter church wearing sackcloth and, sometimes, ashes.

The practice of all the members of the congregation receiving ashes as a sign of penance became common by the 10th century. The common phrase, used from the 16th century until Vatican II, was: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Today, the phrase “Repent and believe the Good News” is also used. Both serve to remind us of our mortality and the universal need to know God’s forgiveness and mercy.

The color purple

The first color used for Christian liturgical vestments was white, in honor of the Lord’s resurrection. However, by the Middle Ages, other liturgical colors had been adopted, such as red, green and purple. Since purple was the color of kings, because the dye to make it was rare and expensive, it was quickly associated with Christ.

This was also the time of knights and purple was also considered in heraldry to be of the same hue as blue, grey and black when used on shields. Since gray and black were also associated with penance and sorrow, purple — connoting a pairing of both penance and royalty — was a natural color for Lent.

Even though Lent and Advent both use purple as a liturgical color, they use two different types of purple. Purples with red tones are the colors of Lent, and are seen as more penitential in nature. They are correctly termed “Roman purples” and refer to the imperial color. Red tones also remind us of blood and are used to symbolize the Lord’s passion. Therefore the redder purples are used during the Lenten season. The more blue tones of purple are linked to Advent.

No Alleluias

During Lent, the Gospel Alleluia (and any other alleluia) is not used at Mass. In keeping with that sense of a penance that pervades Lent, we liturgically sacrifice the joyous Alleluia (and the Gloria) during our celebration of the Eucharist.

Sometimes called the cherubic hymn, the Alleluia is our Easter proclamation. It comes to us from ancient Jewish prayer and is more properly called the “Hallelujah,” roughly translated as “praise be to you, God (in the past, referred to as Yahweh).”

The core of “alleluia” is the Jewish Hallel, meaning “praise.” The Hallel can be found in many psalms, some of which are even called “Hallel psalms” (including the final psalms, 146-150), and in psalms for the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost.

Early Christians, seeing a link between the Jewish Passover and Jesus’ passing over from death to life, naturally incorporated the Jewish Passover praise prayers — including the hallel as “alleluia” — into their own liturgies.

The Alleluia was prominent in the earliest Christian liturgies and were not only to praise God and the Lord Jesus, but also as the deepest profession of Christian faith, a primitive creed that professed our joy over the resurrection. As St. Augustine said, “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!”

Next: Why no meat?

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon; The New Question Box: Catholic Life in the New Century; The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary; New Dictionary of the Liturgy; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions; Modern Catholic Dictionary; The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship;; and Judaism for Beginners

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