In a few days it will be Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. And for the first few days (sometimes weeks) of Lent the whole community will struggle to remember NOT to say or sing “Alleluia”.
We sing “Alleluia” as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, right after the first invocation of the Trinity. But in Lent the word is replaced by awkward silence. The “Alleluia” we sing at Mass before the Gospel is replaced by a “Gospel acclamation” — such as “Praise to You, Word of God”. That’s fine, but it lacks punch.
Like May strawberries or July plums, I miss “Alleluia” when it’s out of season.
But what is this mysterious series of syllables, and why is it censored from the liturgy in Lent?
Most Catholics vaguely understand “Alleluia” to be an exclamation of praise and joy. It sounds like “Abracadabra” and means something like “Hurrah”. Most of us learned to pronounce and sing it as children, along with other mysterious nonsense-words like “trespass” and “communion”.
We’re not kids now, though, and we can do better.
Christianity is not shamanism, and there are no magic words in our prayers. For the Church, words always have meaning.
Alleluia – along with “Amen” and “Hosanna” – is one of a very few ancient Hebrew words that survives in the prayer of the Church. When we sing it, we are imitating the great crowds that surrounded the Temple of Jerusalem and filled its outer courts, singing (as contemporary Jews still do) the “Hallel” prayers – a recitation of psalms 113-118.
In good translations (like the Jerusalem Bible, a Dominican production!) each of these psalms begins with “Alleluia!”.
Then there is psalm 136, sometimes referred to as “The Great Hallel” – invoked not only at the old Temple but in synagogues now on great feast days and by the hairy monks of Mount Athos, where it marks the highest point of morning prayer. On Athos at dawn, the community sings the “Hallel” and all the candles are lit, the chandeliers are made to swing, bells rung and the church doused with sweet smoke — sometimes by means of a censer which itself is bristling in bells.
In Christian liturgy, the assembly shouts “Hallelujah” and God draws near.
Yet the original Hebrew is a phrase rather than a word. And it’s an exhortation to praise rather than an expression of it.
Let me explain: הַלְּלוּיָהּ (halelu-yah) is made of two parts: “halelu”, a second-person imperative masculine plural form of the Hebrew verb hallal – an exhortation to praise! addressed to a group – plus the short, strange syllable “yah”. “Yah” refers to God himself – and in a way so intimate it is almost dangerous, since “Yah” or “יָהּ” is just part of the four-letter name YHWH (יהוה) – which religious Jews refuse even to try to pronounce.
So why do we say “Alleluia” rather than “Hallelujah” in most places in the Catholic world?
Well, that’s down to the Greeks – or, more properly, the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt who translated the Hebrew Bible three centuries before Christ, giving what is called the Septuagint to the world and, in time, to the Church.
In Greek, הַלְּלוּיָהּ became ἀλληλούϊα (allēluia). Sometimes, the translators rendered “Yah” as “Kyrios” – just as Hebrew-speakers replaced the Divine Name with “Adonai”, “the Lord”. And there are ways to get out of saying “Alleluia” altogether by using phrases like “Praise ye the Lord!” or “Thanks to our God!”. But none of those formulations have the powerful history of the compound word “Alleluia”.
And none are as fun to say, sing, or shout.
About that shouting: we Christians have grounding in our own Scriptures for using “Alleluia” as an expression of praise rather than an exhortation to it. In the song of triumph for God’s victory over the Whore of Babylon in chapter nineteen of the Book of Revelation – the Apocalypse of Saint John – we see “Alleluia!” four times, always as an ejaculation, not an admonition. So it’s natural for us to express our joy with this ancient word.
Yet the Koheleth, the preacher of the Book of Ecclesiastes, warns, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
So it is that we put away “Alleluia” — along with other joyous things — for forty days every year, to prepare ourselves in soberness to celebrate the mysteries of the Passion. (But on that Easter night – oh, how we’ll shout “Alleluia”!)
After the philology and theology, dessert:
Everyone knows that this word-phrase הַלְּלוּיָהּ with its nice long vowels has been irresistible to composers of music both sacred and profane. This is true in Hebrew, Greek, or Polish (where it’s “Alleluja” – pronounced with three distinct “L” sounds, if you please).
Before Ash Wednesday, before the vinegar and gall, I think it’s not forbidden to gorge on a little Alleluia-music.
For a Hebrew “Hallelujah”, try a Yemenite Jewish rendition of psalms 113 and 114.
Then there is Mozart’s operatic outflowing from his religious motet Exsultate, jubilate.
There is Mississippi John Hurt drawling out the Old South classic “Glory, Hallelujah, since I’ve laid my burden down”.
Or Leonard Cohen’s ungodly number.
Try a Greek “Alleluiarion” with plenty of hair on its chest.
And don’t forget G.F. Händel’s prancing soufflé. It’s overplayed but brilliant nonetheless.
Gorge on these Alleluias now — along with your donuts — and they just might hold you until Easter.