As I reflect on the end of the Epiphany season and the beginning of Lent, I like to turn to the hymn that transitions us from one to the other on Transfiguration Sunday: “Alleluia, Song of Gladness” (LSB 417). The early Latin text adequately conveys tension between life here on earth and the eternal joy we look forward to in heaven.
“Alleluia, Song of Gladness” addresses the hope that we have through Jesus’ death and resurrection, hope that we will participate in the joyous music of heaven. The text of the hymn uses words such as song, anthem, choirs, and sing. These words point to the importance of music in expressing our joy through Christ.
“Voice of Joy”—Stanza 1
Alleluia, song of gladness,
Voice of joy that cannot die;
Alleluia is the anthem
Ever raised by choirs on high;
In the house of God abiding
Thus they sing eternally.
The hymn begins by describing the joy of those in heaven. The repetition of the word alleluia points to its importance in expressing Christian joy. The word itself means “praise the Lord.” Stanza 1 tells us that it is the song of those who are in heaven. It is a song for all eternity, a song that no one tires of singing.
This song, then, points us to the importance of music in praising God. We sing hymns here on earth and express our joy every Sunday, but this is only a foreshadowing of the joyous hymns we will sing for all eternity in heaven someday. Here, we may tire of music-making, but in heaven we will sing with a “voice of joy that cannot die” (st. 1).
“Mourning Exiles”—Stanza 2
Alleluia, thou resoundest,
True Jerusalem and free;
Alleluia, joyful mother,
All thy children sing with thee,
But by Babylon’s sad waters
Mourning exiles now are we.
However, we are not yet in heaven. Although someday all Christians will joyfully sing with their mother, the new Jerusalem, we must first live out our lives on earth. As we look to the coming Lenten season, we are especially reminded that we are now “mourning exiles” (st. 2). Our joy is not yet complete.
So while the beginning of the hymn points us to the coming eternal joy, the end of stanza 2 transitions us to our current state: living in a sinful world. Although we experience joy here and can express it through our hymns and music, it is not the eternal joy we await in heaven. And as we are reminded of the sufferings of Christ during Lent, we put away our song of gladness for a time.
“The Solemn Time”—Stanza 3
Alleluia cannot always
Be our song while here below;
Alleluia, our transgressions
Make us for a while forgo;
For the solemn time is coming
When our tears for sin must flow.
The third stanza of the hymn addresses the reality of living in a sinful world. While we are here, we are not always singing the joyful song of alleluia. In fact, the hymn tells us that we cannot (st. 3). We cannot always sing alleluia because of our own transgressions. And when we cannot use music to express joy, we instead must weep tears for our own sin.
But the language of stanza 3 also gives slight hope. It tells us that we must forgo our song of alleluia only “for a while.” This stanza says that “the solemn time is coming” when we weep for our sin, but it is only for a time, not for eternity.
“Thine Easter”—Stanza 4
Therefore in our hymns we pray Thee,
Grant us, blessèd Trinity,
At the last to keep Thine Easter
With Thy faithful saints on high;
There to Thee forever singing
While we may not always be able to sing joyful hymns of alleluia, stanza 4 gives us an alternative. We use hymns for prayer. We sing our hymns as a way to look to eternity, but also to pray that God will grant us that joyous eternity. We look forward to the day when we can sing and make music without tiring and without sadness.
And the final stanza of this hymn points us past Lent, past our time of exile and suffering. It is a prayer to God to keep “Thine Easter” (st. 4). We long to be able to sing alleluia again, and we will. We will once again sing that joyous hymn both after this year’s Lenten season gives way to the Easter season and when the sorrows of this life give way to the glorious Easter that brings eternity with Christ.
As another busy season of the Church Year begins for church musicians, let us look forward to the coming resurrection and use our hymns and music to remind others of the hope of a joyous eternity.