Moments after the Easter Vigil Mass in our parish, and before I could escape the choir gallery, the Music Director asked me to lead the song at one of the liturgies the next morning. The assigned cantor had fallen ill and there were no other singers available.
Almost without waiting for a response, the director sat down at the organ so that we could rehearse – but the keys quickly fell silent.
“Don’t drag that ‘Hallelujah’,” he said, correcting my tired interpretation of the gospel’s acclaim. “Remember, it’s Easter. This word should have a fondness for him.
In fact, the same reproach is also used when you say the word “hallelujah”. In fact, the old syllables should be shouted like a victory cry which is downright dangerous for the forces of evil.
“Hallelujah” is the Greek transliteration of Hebrew alleluia (“Hallelujah” in English), meaning “praise the Lord”. The exclamation is only found in a handful of Psalms, as well as in the books of Tobit, of Revelation and, in the Orthodox canon, of the 3 Maccabees. The word resounded in the Israelite festivals; Jesus and his disciples probably sang it during the Last Supper as part of the “Egyptian Hallel” of the Jewish liturgical tradition, Psalms 113-118.
In personal devotion, too, the statement captured a gratitude that flowed from the depths of the heart: “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, I will sing praises to my God while I live ”(Ps 146: 1-2).
Saint John heard the celestial choir sing “Hallelujah! with “the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of great waters, and like the sound of mighty thunderclaps” (Rev 19: 1, 3, 4, 6). For Jews and Christians alike, the word “was also a song of angels and men,” historian Allen Cabaniss wrote.
“Hallelujah” resonated in the mountains and plains of Europe as Christianity spread, becoming part of the Eucharist and Divine Office as well as popular culture. In the middle of the 5th century, Saint Germain d’Auxerre arrived in Britain to fight the Pelagian heresy and – building on his experience as a soldier – decided to multitask while also helping the British to fight the Saxons and Picts. Outnumbered in an ambush, he ordered his comrades (priests among them) to shout “Hallelujah!” And the term exotic scared the enemy away.
Several decades later, the future Pope Gregory I sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to win the souls of Great Britain for Christ, with “alleluia” as the soundtrack. When he learned that the name of the King of Angle was Aella, Gregory made a pious play on words: “Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in these lands. Augustine the missionary arrived in Kent singing a litany with the antiphon “Alleluia”.
In the 9th century, liturgists began to think even more deeply about the word and its meaning. Amalaire de Metz, including Liber officialis (“On the Liturgy”) was on the Carolingian era bestseller list, observed that the pre-gospel acclamation of Alleluia had a profound inner effect on all who sang it, indicating a time when pure faith would supplant the words themselves.
Around the same time, “hallelujahs” began to be “suppressed” at Mass during Lent, and some Western liturgies even developed a formal “farewell to hallelujah” practice. In northern Italy, the year 1233 – a time of severe stress and instability – is known as the “Great Hallelujah”, thanks to wandering monks who sparked a religious revival by chanting the word in the towns and countryside.
Modern ears, even those who are not loyal to the church, are perhaps more familiar with the word through Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah” and its iconic choir “Hallelujah”. Handel himself was not in the best place when he composed the work: in 1741 he was in serious debt after a series of musical failures, and his career seemed to be over. Providentially, his friend Charles Jennens gave him the libretto, and with funding from Irish charities, Handel wrote the score in just 24 days for a benefit performance aimed at freeing the men from debt prison.
The project left him little sleep or appetite, and Handel’s servants often found their boss in tears while writing. However, the end result was exultation: after having finished the choir “Hallelujah”, Handel is said to have said: “I thought I could see all the sky before me, and the great God himself seated on his throne, with his company of ‘angels. “
“Hallelujah” and “Hallelujah” have sounded down through the centuries – in times of joy and sorrow; in countless spirituals, born from generations of agony and resilience; in Scripture which assures us that our Lord has not and will never forsake us.
The word is both holy and provocative, and it is the only appropriate response to a divided, confused, cynical, dependent and hostile world – for it testifies of a God who is the source of eternal life.
Whisper it to your children like a lullaby, and whisper it to your elders when they die. Shout it out in your agony and articulate it while you cry. Write it on your hands and in your hearts: Alleluia, for the Lord is risen, and with him we also arise; alleluia.
Gina Christian is Senior Content Producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of In the CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors”. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.