Here we are, deep into the season of Easter: 50 days of Sunday, a whole week of weeks to live and rejoice in the Resurrection. There are a great number of ways you might observe Easter (especially as you move on from Lenten observance), but we’ll take a moment to think about one of the ways that the whole Church makes Easter known. That is, we add an alleluia to everything. Let’s see why.
Alleluia is an old word. In Hebrew, it comes from two words: halelû (a command to praise) and yah (the short form of the Lord’s name). It is a liturgical word of praise, found very frequently in the last third of the book of Psalms (e.g., at the beginning of Ps 106), the great hymnbook of the people of God. And while your Bible might translate it for you as “praise the Lord,” in so many parts of our liturgy, we still use the word without translating it.
What’s so special about this word? Consider what we use to replace it in Lent. Before the Gospel, instead of alleluia, we sing, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of endless glory.” When we leave off the alleluia during Lent, we don’t leave off its meaning–we translate it! And as if to make up for something lost in translation, we add on the name of Jesus, proclaiming Christ’s kingship and eternal glory. So it’s not the meaning, but the very sound of alleluia that is so special.
But what’s so special about the sound?
Alleluia is a pure and perfect word. It’s pure because it is as close to a pure breath as we can get, having only this most subtle consonant (l is called a “liquid” in phonetics). And alleluia is perfect because it contains every vowel. Before you call out the lack of an o, notice that in St. John’s Greek of the Book of Revelation, following the Septuagint translation of the second century BC, it is written as allelouia. Recalling that Hebrew was written without vowels, this could be a witness to the original pronunciation, having every vowel, the fullness of voice.
Alleluia is a pure and perfect word. It is the song that contains all songs as a pure and perfect seed. It is the song we sing when all words and all letters fall short before the eternal glory of Jesus Christ the King. We mentioned already that alleluia is found in the Psalms, the liturgical songs of God’s people. The only other places we find the alleluia in the Bible, outside the Psalms, are in Tobit and Revelation. In both places, alleluia is the song of the eternal Jerusalem. It is the song of joy, the liturgy of God’s eternal city. We sing alleluia so often in our Easter liturgies because Christ has opened to us the gates to the eternal Jerusalem and its eternal alleluia.
Think of this when you next sing alleluia. Your pure and perfect song is that groaning beyond words, sung by the Breath of God in the hearts of his people. When you join the Church’s alleluia, your voice is the smallest part of what St. John heard in that heavenly Jerusalem: “what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunders, crying, ‘Alleluia!‘ ” (Rev 19:6).