Have you noticed our Easter password?
We’re all used to computer passwords — we need them to let us into all sorts of files and important information. They protect our online identities and safeguard our banking. They give us access to endless information.
But long before there were computers, there was the church’s Easter password: Alleluia.
“Alleluia” is almost synonymous with the Easter greeting that we continue to share throughout Easter’s 50 days: “He is risen.”
During Lent, in the Western church, the Alleluia is not used (except on important feasts like the Annunciation, which is March 25. (This year, March 25 was Good Friday, so the Annunciation celebration was moved to the first Monday after Easter Week.)
In the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Alleluia is always proclaimed. This was actually the case throughout the entire church in its earliest liturgies. As St. Augustine noted in the fourth century: “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!”
“Alleluia” is the Latin translation of a Greek word: Allelouia. Greek was the first written language of the early church and the New Testament was composed in Greek. Only later, by the start of the fifth century, was the Bible — Old and New Testament — translated completely into Latin.
The Greek Allelouia, in turn, came to us from the Hebrew: Hallelujah. And, as much as “Alleluia” is a joyful acclamation, the Jewish version is also almost an order, since it contains an imperative: halal (the directive verb: “praise”).
- In Hebrew, Hallelujah is, of course, a joyful exclamation. It translates as “All praise to you, the one WHO IS.” “WHO IS” is the Hebrew special word for God’s name, sometimes spoken as “Ja” and pronounced “Yah.” This is the name Moses received from God in the burning bush (Ex 3:14) when he asked what name to give to God. The replay was: “I AM.”
- “I am” is the “ia” part of Alleluia.
- The “Allelu” part comes from the Hebrew: Hallel. This word is most often described as referring to a fairly noisy and exuberant form of praise: one writer translated it as “to rave” about God. Hallel can also be thought of as a greeting, as in “all hail.” So “Alleluia” can also mean “All hail the Lord.” (Modern Jews use “the Lord” in substitution for speaking God’s name aloud in any form.)
“Hallel” appears in many of the psalms, some of which are actually called “the Hallel psalms.” — these include the final psalms: 146-150 — and in the psalms used for great Jewish feasts such as Passover and Pentecost.
There is also something called “the full Hallel” — psalms 113-118 chanted together as one unit — that expresses God as the one who cares for the poor (113), is the author of the Exodus (114), is “Lord of Nations” (115 and 117) and as the one who saves us from death (116). The full Hallel is chanted on the Jewish feasts of Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and Hanukkah.
Early Christians, seeing a link between the Jewish Passover and Jesus’ passing over from death to life, naturally incorporated the Jewish hymns of praise — including the hallel as “allelouia” — into their own liturgies.
Besides its appearance in the psalms, “hallelujah” appears in the end of the Book of Tobit (chap. 13), which speaks of the eternal city, Jerusalem, with its streets paved in gold and jewels. Again, early Christians appreciated this image, which appears in the Book of Revelation (chap. 19) in the victory song of the righteous at the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.
The appearance of the Alleluia in Revelation, a book that was written toward the end of the first century after Christ, as well as its prominent use in early liturgies, shows that the word held special meaning for Christians. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the Alleluia was prominent in the most ancient of Christian liturgies, and that it was used not only to express praise to God and to the Lord Jesus, but also as the deepest profession of Christian faith, making the word almost “a primitive credo.”
And what does the Alleluia as a primitive creed, or profession of faith, express? Our joy over the resurrection victory of Christ the Lord. All during Lent, the church refrained from using the Alleluia so that we might remember that, during the Lenten season of repentance and journeying back to God, we are called to change our hearts and turn them toward God. Abstaining from the Alleluia during that time made us more eager to again proclaim what we believe: that Jesus is risen. We profess this belief every time we say “Alleluia.”
The full Easter proclamation is “Christ is risen, Alleluia. He is risen indeed. Alleluia, Alleluia!” So this one word, our special password during the 50 days of Easter and beyond, lets us rejoice that Christ’s resurrection has broken into our world and is rewriting everything into God’s new creation.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; jewishvirtuallibrary.com; “Thayer’s Greek Lexicon”; “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance”; TheJC.com (Jewish Chronicle); “The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon”; “The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary”; “New Dictionary of the Liturgy”; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; historyworld.net; “The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship.”