Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 24, 2000
Why do we sing 'Alleluia'?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
All of a sudden, at Eastertime, the Alleluia plays a prominent role in our liturgies. What is its significance?
The word "Alleluia" is derived from hallelu (imperative of hillel, to praise) and Jah (abbreviation of Jahweh, God). The liturgical call to praise in the Bible, it means "all praise to the God who is."
There seemed to be no need to translate the word so the early Church used alleluia in its liturgy in its Hebrew form and preserved its melismatic character, that is a prolonged singing of one syllable over a number of notes. Cassian (d. 435) and St. Benedict (d. 450) indicate the frequent addition of Alleluia to the psalm verses in reciting the Office.
Although there is some difference of opinion, it is generally accepted that the Alleluia became part of the Mass by order of Pope Damasus (d. 384) at the request of St. Jerome (d. 420) and in imitation of the Church of Jerusalem.
Later, it was restricted to Easter. But in the fifth century, it was expanded to the whole Easter season. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) extended its use to the whole year with the exception of the penitential season of Lent.
An acclamation, it is added before and/or after the antiphon between the Epistle and Gospel readings. At Easter time, it replaces the antiphon and two or even three alleluias are sung. The chant of the alleluia, especially at Easter, is usually elaborate and full of jubilation.
Why the importance attached to this single word especially in the Easter season? It is an expression of pure and unadulterated joy, above any earthly pain or sorrow. In Lent, our spirit of joy and celebration are tinged with the sorrow inherent to a sinful human race and meditation on the mysteries of Jesus' passion and death.
But at Easter, we are a different people. We are a resurrection people, a hope-filled people, a people who view life in the light of Jesus triumphant over sin and evil.
The disciples of Jesus knew that because of the resurrection nothing could be the same. Their lives would have to be lived on a different plane because of their profound experience. They did not know how but having cast their lot with Jesus, they could not deny the love that blows open tombs and Upper Rooms and people's hearts and minds.
And us? Knowing that Jesus has risen is one thing but experiencing the risen Christ is another. In the first instance, something special happened to Jesus; in the second, something special is going on today in and around us.
Jesus did not rise and leave us to go to the Father. Jesus is risen; Jesus is alive now.
Jesus is sharing his new life with us. The light of the resurrected Christ shines through us when we smile at another, extend a helping hand, give an encouraging word; when we risk our privacy to help those in need, when we work for peace and injustice in our world.
Too often, we underestimate our strength. We have the power to put each other in a box or remove the walls encasing people and free them. Because of us, someone comes alive or dies in some way. We can be like the Pharisees, aloof to those in need. Or we can be like Jesus, helping, healing, loving.
We share in this love-power of Jesus as, during Lent, we have followed him on the way of the cross and have died to our selfish nature by prayer, fasting and good works.
Do we experience the resurrection as something real as the disciples did? Will we leave this Easter season knowing that we can never be the same and cannot live as before? Are we willing to open ourselves to the new life to which we are being called?
Will the Alleluias ring out that pure joy of knowing we are loved and blessed by God and called to love and bless others? Or will we simply put away the joyous alleluias until next Easter, not having experienced that power of God in us?