Michelle Francl-Donnay

“Let’s see how many alleluias we can get in before Lent begins,” suggests my pastor as he pages through the breviary to pick a hymn to open Morning Prayer.  I know what he means; I’m never as mindful of all the ways alleluia plays in my life as I am on the brink of Lent.

A single clear voice chants in the silence. Alleluia. Trumpets fly and organs resound. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. A gospel choir sways. Alleluia. A psalmist pulls at a harp in the desert 3,000 years ago. Alleluia. Praise the Lord, in Hebrew. We’ve been singing “alleluia” a long time.

My son Chris sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at his voice recital a few weeks ago. I had heard it before, but listening to him sing I was struck by the many ways I sing “alleluia,” from James Chepponis’ resoundingly majestic Festival Alleluia to the rusty-voiced response I make to the lector’s invocation at morning Mass.

Cohen wrote dozens of verses when he was composing the piece, trying to grapple with the many meanings he heard in the word “alleluia.” Was it holy, broken, cold, blazing with light? I wonder if this is how the psalmists felt, trying to figure out how to sing out their praise of God. Baffled. Overcome. Broken.

Last week in church, the little girl sitting near me was restless. She might have been all of 3 years old, her bright purple bow bobbing up and down as she climbed on and off the pew. As the first chord to the Gospel Acclamation from the Mass of Glory was struck, her mother bent over and whispered to her, “This is your song!” Suddenly she was quiet. The cantor sang it through once, and when she raised her arms, I heard from behind me in a clear and delightful soprano, “alleluia, al-le-luuu-ia!”

Her mother was so right. Alleluia is not only her daughter’s song, but all our song. Like Daniel’s three young men in the furnace, hearing the praise of the Lord resounding in all creation, and on the mouths of all the people of God, we are created to praise the Lord.

I am struck by the thought that if alleluia is truly our song, we might consider responding to everything that happens with that one word, “alleluia” — praise the Lord. Chanting it with passion. Humming it in the ordinary. Spitting it out through clenched teeth. Crying it aloud in joy. Howling it in our worst grief.  Holding it in expectant silence through Lent’s desert. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

At the very end of the song, Cohen says he’ll “stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on [his] tongue but Hallelujah.” Could I stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but “hallelujah”? Then again, could I stand before God with anything on my tongue, but alleluia?

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Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.