Moments after our parish’s Easter Vigil Mass, and before I could flee the choir loft, the music director asked me to lead the singing at one of the following morning’s liturgies. The assigned cantor had fallen ill and there were no other available vocalists.
Almost without waiting for a reply, the director sat down at the organ so we could rehearse — but the keys soon fell silent.
“Don’t drag that ‘Alleluia,’” he said, correcting my tired rendition of the Gospel acclamation. “Remember, this is Easter. That word should have a lilt to it.”
Actually, the same rebuke also serves when you’re speaking the word “alleluia.” In fact, the ancient syllables should be roared as a cry of victory that’s downright dangerous to the forces of evil.
“Alleluia” is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew hallelu-yah (“hallelujah” in English), meaning “praise the Lord.” The exclamation is found in only a handful of Psalms, as well as the books of Tobit, Revelation and, in the Orthodox canon, 3 Maccabees. The word rang out at Israelite festivals; Jesus and his disciples likely sang it during the Last Supper as part of Jewish liturgical tradition’s “Egyptian Hallel,” Psalms 113-118.
In personal devotion, too, the utterance captured a gratitude that welled up from the very depths of the heart: “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to my God while I live” (Ps 146:1-2).
St. John heard the heavenly choir chant “Alleluia!” with “the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals” (Rev 19:1,3,4,6). To Jews and Christians alike, the word “was equally a song of angels and men,” wrote historian Allen Cabaniss.
“Alleluia” rang through the mountains and plains of Europe as Christianity spread, becoming part of the Eucharist and the Divine Office as well as popular culture. In the mid-fifth century, St. Germanus of Auxerre arrived in Britain to tackle the Pelagian heresy, and — drawing on his background as a soldier — decided to multitask by also helping the Britons battle the Saxons and Picts. Outnumbered at one ambush, he ordered his comrades (priests among them) to shout “Alleluia!”, and the exotic term frightened the enemy into retreat.
Several decades later, the future Pope Gregory I sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to win the souls of Britain for Christ, with “alleluia” as the soundtrack. When he learned that the Angle king’s name was Aella, Gregory quipped a pious pun: “Alleluia, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those lands.” Augustine the missionary arrived in Kent chanting a litany with the antiphon “Alleluia.”
In the ninth century, liturgists started reflecting even more deeply on the word and its meaning. Amalarius of Metz, whose Liber officialis (“On the Liturgy”) was on the Carolingian era’s bestseller list, observed that the Alleluia acclamation before the Gospel had a profound inner effect on all who sang it, pointing to a time when pure faith would supplant words themselves.
Around the same time, “alleluia” began to be “suppressed” at Mass during Lent, and some Western liturgies even developed a formal “farewell to alleluia” practice. In northern Italy, the year 1233 — a time of severe stress and instability — came to be known as “the great Alleluia,” thanks to wandering monks who sparked a religious revival while chanting the word throughout the towns and countryside.
Modern ears, even unchurched ones, are perhaps most familiar with the word through Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah” and its iconic “Hallelujah” chorus. Handel himself wasn’t in the best of places when he composed the work: in 1741, he was in serious debt after a series of musical failures, and his career looked to be over. Providentially, his friend Charles Jennens gave him the libretto, and with funding from Irish charitable groups, Handel wrote the score in just 24 days for a benefit performance to free men from debtors’ prison.
The project left him with little sleep or appetite, and Handel’s servants often found their boss in tears while writing. Yet the end result was exultation: after completing the “Hallelujah” chorus, Handel is reported to have said, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself seated on his throne, with his company of angels.”
“Alleluia” and “Hallelujah” have sounded down the centuries — in times of joy and sorrow; in countless spirituals, born of generations of agony and resilience; in Scripture that assures us our Lord has not and never will abandon us.
The word is both holy and defiant, and it is the only fitting response to a world divided, confused, cynical, addicted and hostile — because it attests to a God who is the source of everlasting life.
Murmur it to your children as a lullaby, and whisper it to your old ones as they die. Howl it in your agony and mouth it even as you weep. Write it on your hands and in your hearts: Alleluia, for the Lord is risen, and with him we rise too; alleluia.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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