Alleluia in Lent: The Reality-Shaping Power of Words

As Christians worldwide embark upon the penitential season known as Lent, many will honor the time by giving up something of value like chocolate or a favorite television show. The idea is that sacrificing something small symbolizes the kind of deprivation Jesus undertook in the wilderness, where he's said to have fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights.

Yet in addition to giving up tangible things, some Lenten observers will give up a word, keeping it from their lips until the dawn of Easter Day.

That word is "Alleluia."

Christians have made a practice of omitting Alleluia from their vocabularies for more than a millennia. Some even go so far as to literally bury the word by making a sign that says, "Alleluia" and then depositing it in the ground where it will stay until Easter morning.

So why do Christians place so much stock in a word, and what difference could abstaining from it possibly make?

The word "alleluia" literally comes from a Hebrew one that means "Praise God." So it's joyous, celebratory, and since Lent is just about the opposite of a party, it makes sense that one would omit a word like this as part of a penitential practice.

But the bigger question is whether simply not saying something can really transform one's faith experience.

To that end, it's necessary to think about the nature and purpose of words themselves. Philosophers like J.L. Austin and Judith Butler have proposed that words are performative, which means that words don't just describe our reality, they actually change our reality. So when a priest says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," those words literally transform the relationship between two people who were once not married to two people who are. Likewise, for Christians who believe in transubstantiation, the process of transforming the essence of the bread and wine cannot occur without the priest uttering certain words. In this way, some Christian denominations have demonstrated an implicit commitment to performativity, signifying that words have tremendous power as change agents that alter the actuality of our existence and shift our perception of the world.

So what about this particular Alleluia tradition? The Christian practice of refraining from a certain word during Lent seems to signify two things. First, one could say that a Christian's choice to not to say that word changes her reality from secular time to holy time. In other words, her choice to perform--or in this case, not perform--the word actually give Lent its meaning. Under this construction, one could say that the human experience of Lent isn't a given; in order for Lent to be meaningful, a person has to invest something in it. This would be similar to saying that today may be your birthday and you will become 49 today whether you want to or not, but how you celebrate your birthday determines the ultimate meaning you give to it. If you throw yourself a party, then your birthday becomes a day that celebrates your life. If you get depressed and go on a solo bender, then your birthday may be a reminder of finite mortality or personal regret. The cash out, then, is that Lenten observers are reminded to speak and act intentionally in order to keep the season holy.

If the first takeaway from the Alleluia practice has to do with shaping reality's meaning, the second has to do with the power of words in general. In a time when some think that religion is becoming less relevant to our everyday lives, the simple choice to refrain from using the word "Alleluia" is a reminder that religions are not just defined by our buildings or our rituals or our church hierarchies. They're also fundamentally shaped by the words that we do or do not say. These words shape our spiritual realities, influencing everything from how we define God to how we define our dogmas. They signify who is included, who is excluded, what is privileged and what is not. Put differently, religious individuals and organizations need to be incredibly mindful not just of how they behave but also of how they speak, because what they say matters. It matters tremendously. And if religion is to be relevant, then its vocabulary needs to be relevant too.

This Lent, I encourage people of faith take a moment to consider how the words they say reflect (or do not reflect) their beliefs and their actions. Because as I've said above, words may seem like mere symbols, but in fact they are agents of hope and bringers of change, molding the reality around us.