Eastertide in the rearview mirror

Now that the great 50 days of Easter in both East and West are behind us (but still remembered every Sunday), we turn our attention to a liturgical field of green, augmented by feasts of ideas, remembrances, and saints. Unless, of course, we only observed 40 days after Easter, as still found in a number of pre-Vatican II Anglican prayerbooks, or perhaps 50 days but with interruptions for the prayers of rogation days (now re-ordered with the centrality of climate change before our eyes), or interrupted by contemporary days of ecclesial and cultural importance, or interrupted by life… It would be so glorious if we all just kept this “joyful space” and simultaneously blew out our paschal candles at the agreed-upon time, but even doing this seems impossible these days…


A wonderful deacon in the Anglican Diocese of Huron asked me about the alleluias in the eucharistic dismissal for these fifty days, and why such different patterns existed (such as using a double alleluia only for the octave of Easter) – and there I went – down the rabbit hole. She simply wanted an answer, I wanted to know why, I’m afraid neither is definitively solved. But who better to bring the question to than the community of liturgical, musical, and theological knowledge-keepers who gather around PrayTellBlog?


So, here we go. It seems there are two strands – the history, development, and meaning of the eucharistic dismissal itself, and the role of alleluias – in Easter – at the dismissal, but also the Easter dismissal’s relationship to the alleluias before the gospel. In historically Latin-speaking churches, both elements are shaped by ritual and music, drawing on history, accident, liturgical development, politics, and musicological trends.


First the dismissal, the missa. What do we know? We know that prior to and parallel to early Christianity, audiences with important people or other public gatherings were brought to a conclusion with a “we’re done, you can leave now,”, along the lines of Ire licet. Extant Christian use and Christianized versions appear in the late 4th and 5th centuries, varying from the Milanese use of “let us proceed in peace-in the name of Christ” to Avitus of Vienne’s dismissal using missa, to Leo the Great describing each separate section of the eucharistic liturgy as a missa where there was a blessing (or a dismissal) for some of the worshipers present, and the growing commonality of Deo gratias as a response for all sorts of dialogues in the liturgy. The Apostolic Constitutions (4th century) used “go in peace” as a prayer of protection, and finally, the Ordo Romano Primus (compiled around the year 700) has the deacon proclaiming ite, missa est and the people respond Deo gratias, followed by a blessing!


The result is not only a variety of different words used to dismiss the Christian community, but also a fair amount of confusion regarding which of the closing prayers or ritual texts constituted the dismissal in these first centuries. The postcommunion prayer – for those participants still present – was a type of dismissal; the emergence of a blessing was a type of dismissal; the prayer over the people (blessing, not a blessing?) which takes several centuries in the Western Church to be sorted out as to whether it was used only for Lent, only for solemnities, or was actually an umbrella label for episcopal blessings with inclinatio, was a type of dismissal; all of these contribute to the emergence of a definitive dismissal.


In various written sources around the year 800, the Roman ite, missa est meets a Gallican tradition for ending various liturgies, Benedicamus Domino, also answered with Deo gratias. But it is not until the 11th and 12th centuries that we learn more about the developing rules surrounding these dismissals, in large part thanks to Bernold of Constance and his commentary on papal liturgy (Micrologus de ecclesiasticis observationibus) written around 1085 from a decidedly pro-Roman perspective. Here the ite, missa est was done when a Gloria was part of the eucharistic liturgy, the Benedicamus Domino when the liturgy lacked a Gloria and/or when there is no ending (just a break between a sequence of connected liturgies). By the 12th century, this rule of thumb was brought back to Rome, and as the ite, missa est was also considered a joyful dialogue, the developing Requiem Mass also dropped it, substituting Requiescant in pace in its place.


Okay, that’s a bit of the first strand of the emerging dismissal, but what about the second strand, the Easter alleluia(s) added to the dismissal? We know from one source (Bernold’s Micrologus again) that the Roman dismissal was not used when there was no ending, as in a series of liturgies. This means that the Easter Vigil would not have used the ite, missa est in this understanding, as it was part of a “series” of ongoing liturgies, not an actual ending in itself. But we also know that Latin-language liturgies loved their jubilus (the melismatic and increasingly soloistic singing of various texts, primarily alleluias, in the liturgy). Augustine of Hippo had a few things to say about this early on, and while these perhaps developed in the centuries between Augustine and the 10th century, we only have extant evidence from about the 10th century. Just to complicate things a bit more, the melismatic exuberance ran into a newish idea – give a new syllable to each of the notes in sequence, which contributes to “sequence texts” between scripture readings and the addition of tropes to the non-Benedicamus Domino dismissals.


With regard to the Easter Vigil though, we know the Benedicamus Domino was not troped, only the ite missa est, perhaps postponing the alleluias at the vigil because of that (but eventually the tropes being recorded in several later local Missals (such as Regensburg, 1485). We also know that between the 10th and the 12th centuries, various offices were added to Easter vigil liturgies, complicating further the “dismissal rites” of Easter. Here the trail starts to run cold in discovering exactly how (and where) these troped versions of the ite, missa est developed with Easter alleluias. They may very well have developed alongside of the Latin chants between readings (the gradual and the alleluia between the first reading and the gospel when the readings dropped to two), about which we know much more. In this liturgical spot, we know double alleluias are added to the Sundays of Easter, but not in Easter Week because of the confitemini Domino psalm which has a more “original Easter character than the alleluia” according to Jungmann. Does that development of the gospel acclamation inspire a parallel augmentation of the dismissal with double Easter alleluias?


Might this be part of the missing puzzle pieces that the deacon at the Cathedral in the Diocese of Huron was referring to, in that a double alleluia is used for the Octave of Easter, and a single alleluia for the rest of Easter, or vice versa (and why)? Is this simply a case of lovely music leading the development of both gospel acclamations and dismissals in Easter without regard for earlier rules about what could and could not be troped? Certainly the musical expansions become theology themselves, leading to robust explanations of how alleluias and ‘amen’ are the chants that will never end, even with the Parousia.


And how do current rubrics reflect the historical development? In spite of personal experience and the evidence from a number of RC hymnals, the current English language Roman Missal (and current GIRM) for the US appear to distinguish between the octave of Easter and the whole of the Easter season (“the Easter dismissal is observed throughout the Octave of Easter” with no mention on the Sundays of Easter until Pentecost, where the double Easter alleluias are again printed – with music – in the missal) The dismissal was absent in Anglican prayer books until the reforms which bore fruit after Vatican II, so in one of the first of the “new generation”, the BCP 1979 of the US, the rubrics reads “from the Easter Vigil through the Day of Pentecost ‘alleluia, alleluia’ may be added to any of the dismissals (which oddly refer to the ‘standard’ troped ite missa est/go in peace versions and the Benedicamus Domino which historically was never ‘festive’). The 1985 Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada (drawing on the 1979 BCP among other resources) first mentions at the Easter Vigil; “at the dismissal, ‘alleluia’ is added to the versicle and response,” and then for the Easter Season, “from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost, ‘alleluia’ is added to the dismissal and the peoples’ response (note – just a single alleluia, even though the musical settings often contain two alleluias). Lastly Common Worship: Times and Seasons (Church of England, 2012) lists “go in the peace of Christ, alleluia, alleluia” and the standard “thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia” as the text for all of Easter.


We know that the theology of the dismissal has shifted very strongly toward missa as missio – the dismissal sends us out to continue the work of the liturgy for the world, not such a clear theological priority in historical liturgical understandings of the missa. But how are we supposed to do it? One alleluia or two? If most Western churches have worked hard to restore the unity of the great 50 days, why change the pattern for the first 8 days? Why are we adding alleluias to “let us bless the Lord”, which does not necessarily send us out to be Christ for the world, but does invite us to continue our praise of God? Over to you – with hopes that more answers will be forthcoming!


  1. I found this article fascinating because I hadn’t really thought about the use of “alleluia” in Easter, and it made me wonder about its theological implications when used with a form of dismissal. There is, however, a related issue that has bugged me for some time. In churches with hymnals, which in the Philippines are mostly mainline Protestant churches, there are a fair number of Easter hymns in those books. The sad part is, however, that these are greatly under-utilized because people responsible for the music in most congregations often decide not to use them after Easter Day (or even the second Sunday at most) because of a belief that “Easter is over.” That belief, of course, is due to the fact that the civil observance of Easter is just one Sunday (and Monday) a year.

    The Roman Missal’s rubrics on this subject aren’t helpful either, because, apart from those who attend daily liturgical services, I can hardly imagine anyone being aware that the week after Easter Day is a festive occasion and a “great Sunday.” So we are left with a situation where Easter, unlike another Christian feast that capitalism has co-opted to a huge extent, is marginalized both in church and society. And how can we send off people to go forth, rejoicing in the power of that spirit of the God that raised Christ Jesus from the dead, if we can’t acknowledge how important and central Easter is?

    1. Easter complications abound! (hadn’t thought about the “Easter as one day only” piece in this – thanks)

    2. I think that we who have the privilege of choosing music for our churches also have a huge responsibility. I wonder how many of us made sure we kept alleluia in our songs throughout the Easter season? Indeed, I wonder if we all kept the Easter season in our minds at all.
      I have been looking at the livestream recordings from my UK diocese to see exactly what was being sung. I blogged about the choice of hymns here

      I haven’t said anything about the music used for the ordinary of the Mass but I can say that there were very few parishes who had a setting that they kept throughout the season. Sadly, there is still a lot to do in terms of formation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *