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Lenten Customs

Burying the Alleluia        

In the language of worship, there are words and phrases that are not translated, words that seem to need no translation.  Amen is such a word, a Hebrew word that indicates assent, "so be it," and the word by which a congregation expresses its participation in a prayer said by the officiant.  Kyrie eleison, Greek for "Lord, have mercy", is a phrase that continued in use long after Latin became the official language of liturgy of the West.  Alleluia is a word that is heard throughout the Christian world, whether the language of the local liturgy is Latin or Greek, Slavonic or Armenian, French or English.  It is a word that has occasionally been translated but, more often than not, has been left untranslated.  It is the Greek and Latin form of the Hebrew word Hallelujah, a word which means "praise the Lord."  In the West, alleluia came to have a particular association with the celebration of the most important feast of the Church year, Easter, and this led to some unique, beautiful, interesting customs.

The association of alleluia with Easter led to the custom of intentionally omitting it from the liturgy during the season of Lent, a kind of verbal fast which has the effect, not of depressing the mood of the liturgy, but of creating a sense of anticipation and even greater joy when the familiar word of praise returns.  Indeed, when the alleluia does return, it is with an incredible flourish.  Before the proclamation of the Gospel at the Great Vigil of Easter, alleluia is sung to an exceptionally elaborate tone.  It is a moment of unrestrained fervor as a singer intones the elaborate alleluia, and the congregation sings it back.  The cantor raises the pitch and sings the alleluia a second time, and again the congregation echoes it back.  Once more, the cantor raises the pitch, and the congregation responds.  And then the good news is proclaimed that Christ is risen from the dead.  The dramatic effect of the return of the alleluia is heightened considerably by the fact that no alleluias have been heard since Lent began.

In order to inaugurate the alleluia fast, the custom arose of "burying the alleluia" before Lent begins as a reminder that we do not use it at all during the forty days of Lent.  We do not use it at church.  We do not use it at home.  We let it rest, as it were, during Lent, so that when it reappears on Easter, we may hear it afresh.  In fact, once it returns on Easter, we give it no rest at all, repeating it again and again, in celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus.  There are various ways to "bury the alleluia."  Here is one that combines this custom with a popular Easter custom.  The Alleluia Egg is designed to help us bury the alleluia during Lent and to put alleluia in our midst during Easter.

The Alleluia egg can be any kind of egg.  A fresh egg is probably not a good idea, but a hard-boiled egg, a blown egg (a whole egg shell with the yolk and white removed through pinholes at either end), a wooden egg, or even a plastic egg all will work.  The egg may be decorated in any way at all, but the decoration must include the word alleluia written in relatively large, legible letters on the egg.  It may be written once, or many times.  You will also need a container of some sort to hold the egg while it is "buried".  A small box or a bag are suitable containers.

On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, have a fling.  Put your Alleluia  egg in the center of the table where everyone can see it. Eat pancakes (the English custom) or have a Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday") party.  Dress up in costume, invite company for dinner.  And, whatever else you do, sing alleluia as often as possible.  If you and your guests are musical, sing hymns that have the word alleluia in them. Perhaps you know the song, "Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia.  Praise ye the Lord."  Any and all alleluia songs will do.  And, if you cannot or will not sing, then saying alleluia will have to do: say it, shout it, whisper it.  When supper is served, begin and end grace with some alleluias. When praising the food, be sure to praise God, as well, as in "Hallelujah, these pancakes are delicious."  It is quite all right to use the Hebrew form, as well as the variations of pronunciation found in other languages.  Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" would be great dinner music, or you could have a sing-along to your favorite recording.

After supper, it is time to put your Alleluia egg in its bag or box and hide it some place:  under the dining room table, in a drawer or a closet, some place it can lie hidden for the forty days of Lent.  Everyone should go together to do this.  Make a procession and perhaps have the youngest member of the family carry the egg.  Sing alleluia songs as you go and, as you "bury" the egg, whisper it until the burial is complete.  During the season of Lent, do not say the word.  Let it lie buried.

On Easter Day, in the morning, at Easter dinner time, or when you come home from church, gather around the burial place.  Bring out the container, open it, and remove the Alleluia Egg.  As you do, sing "Jesus Christ is risen today" or other Easter hymns and songs that say alleluia.  Shout alleluias.  Use them in your personal prayers and in your family prayers.  Say alleluia with grace at dinner (and do so throughout the season of Easter.)  Let the word be new and fresh.  Let it help you praise the Lord that Jesus is alive.  Take the egg to some prominent place (the table where you eat regularly, on top of the TV where you gather regularly, etc.) and leave it there for the fifty days of Easter.  Eggs  are wonderful reminders of Jesus' resurrection.  As the chick bursts from the egg, so Jesus burst from the tomb.

On the Day of Pentecost, quietly put the egg away in your china closet or some place where you keep family valuables.  Bring it out again as we approach the next Shrove Tuesday.  Make the Alleluia egg a family tradition, an heirloom along with your Christmas crèche.


The Dance of the Lenten Veils

First some terms.

The Roman Rite is the form and manner of celebrating the Church's liturgy according to the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. Today the rules are those set forth following the Second Vatican Council. Among other things, this would include the vernacular Mass, a generally simplified ceremonial, and altars pulled away from the wall so the celebrant can face the people.  (This last change was never actually mandated, by Vatican II, but it became virtually universal, nonetheless.)  When some Episcopalians (most often Anglo-Catholics) talk about the Roman or the Western Rite they are referring to those rules set forth by the Council of Trent In 1545‑63. It is called the Tridentine liturgy. This would include the Mass in Latin, a more elaborate ceremonial, minor propers (special verses inserted at various points in the rite), and the white‑red‑green‑purple color scheme.

The Sarum Rite (referred to as "the British Museum Rite" by some) is the best known version of the rites more generally classified as the Old English Rite. The Sarum rite is the form and Manner of celebrating the Church's liturgy following the rules in the liturgical books of the medieval Diocese of Salisbury (Sarum) in England. Other diocesan rites in medieval England are also studied and referred to by those who speak highly of the Old English or Sarum traditions. You will find Episcopal Churches which model their liturgy on the present Roman rite, others which follow an adaptation of the Tridentine Roman rite, and still others which adhere to the Sarum ways. Since all of those rites were based on particular missals or texts of the Mass, very few Anglican congregations follow any of them precisely.  Liturgy in most Anglican churches tend to borrow from all three, and often to add local adaptations, as well.

The Sunday of the Passion is the proper name for Palm Sunday (see p. 219), according to the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

Passion Sunday is what the Fifth Sunday in Lent was commonly called, according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (p. 132), and, up until the reforms of Vatican II, in the Roman rite.

Veiling of Crosses according to the Roman Rite. Those who follow the Roman tradition veil crosses, pictures, and statues on Passion Sunday (see above) and they remain veiled until the arrival of Easter. According to Ritual Notes (p. 250) "Before the first Evensong of Passion Sunday‑all crosses, pictures, and Images In the church (including, if practically possible, the great rood) are covered with opaque purple veils. These veils, which must not be transparent, nor bear any device or symbol, are not removed for any festival, however high in rank, which may occur during Passion week; the processional cross, however, is unveiled for the procession on Palm Sunday." In Anglican Services we read, "At the festal Mass, however, on Maundy Thursday, the veil on the cross on the high altar (but no other cross) is white; and also on Good Friday that of this same cross is sometimes black," though the Roman rite itself seems to require that the altar cross and candles be taken away and the altar be left totally bare on Good Friday. Stations of the Cross are not veiled. According to The Ritual Reason Why, "The spirit of the Passiontide veiling seems to be that the Church would draw off our attention from everything but Him whose suffering [passion] she is commemorating, bidding us 'consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners.'  It is also symbolical of the hiding of our Lord's glory during His earthly life, and especially during His ignominious and bitter Passion." Dorothy C. Diggs' A Working Manual for Altar Guilds follows the Roman tradition in addressing the issue of veils. This book has been the authority for many Altar Guilds in the Episcopal Church for many years.

The Present Roman Rite. Following the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical reforms of the 1960s "suppressed" the Lenten veil. In the 1975 edition of the Sacramentary, the practice was reintroduced as an option. At the end of the propers for the Saturday of the 4th week in Lent we read:  "The practice of covering crosses and images in the church may be observed.... The crosses are to be covered until the end of the Lord's passion on Good Friday, images are to remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil." Liturgical Training Publications, a publication of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago (1800 No. Hermitage Ave., Chicago, IL) has published To Crown the Year:  Decorating the Church through the Seasons by Peter Mazar. The Lenten veil is discussed in this book as are many other subjects of interest to Altar Guild members as they concern themselves with decorating the church for the liturgical year.

Veiling according to the Sarum (Old English) Rite. This is a quite different tradition. In this tradition "according to the rules that in all the churches of England be observed, all images [are] to be hid from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day in the morning." This is called the Lenten Array and it includes a curtain which hides the reredos, a frontal which covers the altar, and veils which cover other statues and pictures in the church. The color was Lenten white which was natural linen material, sometimes referred to as ash color. According to An Introduction to English Liturgical Colours, "The explanation of this use of white, which is closely akin to ashen, is 'in this time of Lent, which is a time of mourning, all things that make to the adornment of the church are either laid aside or else covered, to put us in remembrance that we ought now to lament and mourn for our souls dead in sin, and continually to watch, fast, pray, give alms....,' wherefore 'the clothes that are hanged up this time of Lent in the church have painted on them nothing else but the pains, torments, passion, blood­shedding, and death of Christ, that now we should only have our minds fixed on the passion of Christ, by whom only we were redeemed." This practice made a startling transformation of the church for the whole of the Lenten season so that Easter literally burst forth like the Lord from the tomb when the church was returned to normal state. Both the Roman tradition and the Sarum tradition, though different in color and different in length, were about the same thing. They were about helping us to focus single-mindedly on the Passion of Our Lord.

Lenten array in the Lady Chapel of St. Augustine's Church  
Gillingham, England
 from "Some English Altars" by Dr. Percy Dearmer
 found on Project Canterbury

For some additional examples of Lenten array, click here.

A suggestion for today. Byron Stuhlman, an Episcopalian, in Prayer Book Rubrics Explained (p. 81) suggests: "The Lenten Season has come to have an austere quality to it that seems appropriate to its character as a time of fast and preparation. A feast is best appreciated after a fast. In actual fact, many of the apparently austere characteristics of the season simply preserve features of early Christian worship before it was elaborated in later centuries. Still, the mood is appropriate. It has become customary to avoid ornament in church during this season. The Lenten array, traditionally unbleached linen trimmed in red and black, covers altar and ornaments in the church, and matching vestments and hangings may be used. It became customary to veil even crosses during Lent because they were thought of as signs of victory. This is certainly appropriate for a Christus Rex or an elaborate jeweled cross. It makes no sense for a crucifix or a simple cross. It is probably more appropriate to substitute a simpler cross than to veil a cross."

Anglo-Catholic parishes which tend to follow the Roman rite have veiled statues and ornaments for many years, beginning on the old Passion Sunday.  English rite Lenten array enjoyed a modest revival in early 20th century England, particularly encouraged by Percy Dearmer.  The custom has gained increasing acceptance around the Anglican Communion and is now widespread in some provinces, such as the US, though it is by no means universal. 


The pretzel has been used during Lent for over 1500 years.  It is thought that originally pretzels were made to resemble arms crossed in prayer.  This bread can have deep spiritual meaning for us during Lent.  Since basically only flour and water are used, pretzels can remind us of Lenten fasting.  They are also reminders of the call to deeper prayer which we hear at Lent.  Here is a recipe which the whole family or a church school class can make together.  Why not invite friends to an evening of pretzel making and prayer?

Soft Pretzels

Dissolve 1 cake of yeast in 1½ cups of water.
Add 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar.
Blend in 4 cups of flour.

Knead the dough until smooth.  Cut into small pieces. Roll into ropes and twist into desired shape. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet. Brush pretzel with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse salt.  Bake immediately at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Pretzel Prayer

Heavenly Father, we ask you to bless these little breads.  Each time we eat them, may we be reminded of the special season of prayer and fasting that we are keeping.  May they remind us of our need to come closer to you in prayer.  May they remind us of those in need.  Keep your loving arms around us, O Father, to protect us always, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


The Fourth Sunday in Lent

commonly called

Mothering Sunday

also known as Refreshment Sunday

The Fourth Sunday in Lent marks the middle of the Lenten fast and has traditionally been marked with special activities. It has various names, including Mothering Sunday and Refreshment Sunday. The former title is a reference to the fact that this was the traditional day for apprentices and young people "in service" (i.e., working as servants) to have a holiday to go home and visit their mothers, bringing with them presents. Mothering Sunday is the original "mother's day" and reminds us of our natural mothers and also of our spiritual mother, the Church.  A fuller explanation of the history of the observance and its customs may be found by following this link provided by Project Canterbury.  As the linked article notes, the occasion is marked with a special holiday confection called simnel cake, baked with fine flour, sugar, and fruit. Two recipes are provided below.  These modern recipes are considerably simpler than the original boiled and baked cakes described in the article.  In many churches today it is the custom to bring the simnel cake to church to be blessed and distributed.  It is appropriate to present the cake at the Altar, together with the alms and oblations, at the time of the Offertory.  It may be blessed either before the Great Thanksgiving or at the end of the service after the Post Communion Prayer.  A prayer of blessing is also given below.

A Recipe for Simnel Cake
from St. Paul's Church, Salem, New York

¾ cup butter               ½ tsp. salt
2 cups sugar               ¾ cup raisins
4 eggs                        1 cup diced candied fruit
2 cups flour                1 cup almond paste
                   sugar icing glaze

Grease a large round deep cake pan (10") and set aside. Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well. Blend in flour and salt, adding candied fruit and raisins last. Pour half of the batter into the cake pan. Roll out almond paste and place on top of the batter. Cover almond paste with remaining batter. Bake at 300º for one hour. Frost with confectioner’s sugar glaze.


Another Recipe for Simnel Cake
from St. Paul's Cathedral, Burlington, Vermont

Combine the following ingredients and bake in a greased loaf pan at 300º for one hour.

½ cup butter
1 cup flour
½ cup sugar
2 ounces candied citron peel
1½ cups currants (or raisins)
2 eggs

Cool the cake on a rack, then slice and wrap individual slices in foil or plastic wrap.

Blessing of Simnel Cake

Almighty God, giver of all joy: Receive at our hands this cake, that it may be to us a symbol of our communion with thee and with one another; as its flour was once scattered over our land as wheat and now is one, so let us be one in anticipation of thy gift of the new Jerusalem which, as thy redeemed people, is our joy, our hope, our destiny, and our home. Hear us, O Lord, through Jesus Christ thy Son, to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


Hot Cross Buns

It is one of the peculiarities of the observance of the great fast of Lent that several of the customs surrounding it have to do with food:  pretzels, simnel cake, and hot cross buns.  Hot cross buns are perhaps the strangest of these customs as they are sweet rolls that are eaten on the most important fast of all, Good Friday.  The origins of this very English custom are not entirely clear.  It has been suggested that hot cross buns originated in the pagan cult that preceded Christianity in Britain.  But the earliest historical mention of them is traced to a 12th century English monk who is said to have marked buns with the sign of the cross in honor of Good Friday.  A 14th century record tells how a monk of St. Albans distributed spiced cakes to the needy on Good Friday, inaugurating an annual tradition, though he carefully guarded his recipe.

Whatever their origins, there were certainly ideas associated with these buns that some would regard as superstitions.  Hot cross buns were eaten after sundown to break the Good Friday fast. In the Middle Ages, they were believed to have powers of protection and healing.  People would hang a hot cross bun from the rafters of their homes for protection through the coming year.  And if someone was sick, some of the dried bun would be ground into powder and mixed with water for the sick person to drink.

In the reign of Elizabeth I, when Roman Catholicism was banned, making the sign of the cross on the buns was regarded as popery and the practice was banned.  But neither Church nor State could suppress the popular custom, so legislation was enacted to limit consumption of hot cross buns to legitimate religious occasions such as Christmas, Easter, and funerals.  The familiar nursery rhyme, "Hot cross buns," derives from the call of the street vendors who sold them.

There are various recipes for the buns, but an authentic recipe should include currants and a cross either incised on the top of the buns or painted on with a sweet glaze.  Our friends at Catholic Culture have a typical recipe for hot cross buns.

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
If you haven't any daughters,
Give them to your sons!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
If you haven't got a penny
A ha'penny will do.
If you haven't got a ha'penny,
Well God bless you.

Click here for music for the nursery rhyme.

More recipes for simnel cake and hot cross buns.

If you found this page helpful, you may also be interested in reading Preparing for Lent and our page on Easter Customs.