Let us sing Alleluia! – Second Sunday of Easter 2011

You know the old story of  the man who bought a horse from a preacher. The horse was a devout pentecostal, and to make him go you had to shout “Hallelujah!” and to make his stop “Amen”. The man got up on the horse, shouted “Hallelujah” and off they went at a fierce gallop, heading towards the edge of a cliff. In vain the rider tried to remember the correct command. Was it “Hosanna”? No. “Gloria in excelsis?” No. Just at the last moment he remembered “Amen”, and the horse stopped at the brink. The rider was so relieved. “Hallelujah….”

We retain certain words in our worship which are taken directly from the Hebrew, partly because Jesus himself would have used them, partly because no translation quite captures the original sound, if not the meaning. “Hallelu Jah” simply means “Praise-ye Jehovah, praise the Lord”, and we use it in this form in the opening responses of Morning Prayer. But there is something about the sound itself that works as a shout of praise. “Alleluia” became associated particularly with the Gospel reading; and the ancient deacons who were singing the Alleluia chant would go off on a solo run, rather like a scat singer in jazz. So many notes were used that in later times they were given extra words and turned into the hymns called “Sequences”. Something of this elaboration of Alleluia survives in, for example, the florid last line of the hymn “Jesus Christ is risen today”, which is so effective in our Easter praises.

In the Western church, to which we originally belong, Alleluia was treated as a festal word, and so was omitted from Septuagesima through Lent, coming back with a vengeance on Easter Day. Wherever there was a space, they tacked on an Alleluia; if there was one there already, they added one more. You can’t have enough alleluias during Eastertide!

The Eastern tradition is different, as they use Alleluia all the time. I was in the Greek church in Arbour Hill on Good Friday, and it was a bit strange to hear the alleluias still going. Even stranger is a line in one of their funeral hymns, which says; “Weeping o’er the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia”. This is the praise we offer God “through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy”. Rather like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, it addresses sorrow by declaring the goodness and praiseworthiness of God. It is the voice of Easter hope in darkness. It is not always easy to sing alleluia, but it is always appropriate.

St Augustine once wrote: “My dear friends, let us sing “Alleluia” here and now in this life, even though we are oppressed by various worries. Let us sing “Alleluia” , albeit not yet in the enjoyment of our heavenly rest, but in order to sweeten our toil in this life. Let us sing as travellers sing on a journey in order to help them keep on walking. Lighten your toil by singing and never be idle. Advance in virtue, in true faith and in right conduct. Sing up – and keep on walking!”

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