Every night before bed, Dominicans pray Compline. It’s among the shortest prayers of the day, and seldom takes more than twelve minutes to chant. Yet during the Easter season, in this small space of time we sing Alleluia twenty-eight times! After forty Lenten days of its absence, here it is again, back from the dead.
First we have to ask, why do we sing Alleluia?
Sometimes, singing is just “what happens.” When we’re looking face to face with something truly great—for instance, the face of Christ, smiling and staring back from the grave—it’s quite natural to freak out a bit. The Resurrection is the great work of God. It’s not the icing on the cake; it’s the whole cake! It’s the whole culmination of God’s work in bringing home man, who was lost. In a single night He destroys our enemies, sin and death; He opens a way to the Father’s house; and He pours grace on His people that we may live as conquerors in this life, as we journey to the next. How can we, small creatures as we are, now basking in the great glory of God, hope to do anything in response to this? So by instinct, we do all that we know and cry out with our voice, Alleluia!
As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
Singing indicates that the person is passing beyond the boundaries of the merely rational and falling into a kind of ecstasy; the merely rational he can express in ordinary language (that is why overly rational people are seldom tempted to sing). Now singing finds its climactic form in the Alleluia, the song in which the very essence of all song achieves its purest embodiment. (Dogma and Preaching, 299)
And that brings us to our second question: what does “Alleluia” even mean? He continues:
We are dealing here with something that cannot be translated. The Alleluia is simply the nonverbal expression in song of a joy that requires no words because it transcends all words . . . As the harvesters in the field or vineyard experience an increasing sense of joy, they become incapable, it seems, of finding words to express this overflowing joy. They abandon syllables and words, and their singing turns into a jubilus or cry of exultation. A jubilus is a shout that shows the heart is trying to express what it cannot possibly say. And to whom is such a jubilus more fittingly directed than to him who is himself ineffable? He is ineffable because your words cannot lay hold of him. (299)
There are many times in life where joy is better expressed in wild, incoherent shouting than in words. I’ve seen college girls, catching sight of a friend after summer break, scream across the parking lot at each other. Or who hasn’t witnessed a game-winning score and joined in the roaring of the crowd?
But we can’t simply shout at God. We’re human, and we have the unique need to express ourselves in words, even if they fall short. Although the experience of deep joy has no translation into words, we must say something to give voice to the somersaults within. When Adam beholds Eve for the first time, he cries, “This at last!” (Gen 2:23). Easter morning is the same, with Mary Magdalene casting herself at Jesus’ feet crying, “Rabbouni!” (Jn 20:16). Or that evening, when He appeared to the disciples, they say, “We have seen the Lord!” (Jn 20:25). The words we use are placeholders for the joy within us. From Adam, to Alleluia, to any slight “wow” we offer to any slight wonder in the world, we try to put our joy into words.
Historically speaking, of course, the word Alleluia does mean something. It is after all used in the Old Testament, mostly in the psalms—a total of twenty-four times—particularly in what are called the Hallel Psalms, no. 113–150, which are chanted every Passover. It comes from the Hebrew hallal-ujah, meaning “Praise YHWH.” But what then does that mean? What does it mean to praise? Praising is a response to first recognizing the goodness of God, and telling Him that He is good.
Praise is a unique phenomenon. It’s a response to having experienced God in some way: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). The inner experience is wordless, but we feel the need to make some sort of return with words. So we stand there and tell Him all the things He already knows about Himself! But we really need to. We need to say Alleluia! In the New Testament, the word is used four times—all in the Book of Revelation—when the saints sing to the Lamb who accomplished the greatest act in all history, our salvation.
During my novitiate year, I helped tutor students in inner-city Cincinnati. Once I was explaining the word Alleluia to a third-grade girl, and she butted in saying, “Don’t you mean HA-lleluja?” And she’s right. She didn’t know she was using a pronunciation much closer to the Hebrew—stressing the ha—but she did know we have to place emphasis on the word. After all, it’s the Resurrection! All of Christian life as we know it begins here. Speaking with God in prayer, the sacraments, loving our neighbor, searching for the purpose or mission of our life—Jesus laid the foundation for all of it by His public life and teaching. But here in this event, everything He taught came true. He danced over death, to prove that the kingdom He promised while living would come true. And it did. Alleluia!