Don’t Take the “Alleluia” for Granted

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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Singing indicates that the person is passing beyond the boundaries of the merely rational and falling into a kind of ecstasy. (That is why overly rational people are seldom tempted to sing.) Now singing finds its climactic form in the Alleluia . . . In fact, 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.

(Pope Benedict XVI)

I’ve often written and said that the Christmas Season can be summarized in one word, “Emmanuel,” a word that means “God is with us.” Well in the same way, I believe, the Easter Season can also be summarized in one word: “Alleluia!”

If you’re a regular church-goer, and I hope that you are, you will hear the word Alleluia a thousand times during the Easter Season. Beginning with the solemn singing of the triple Alleluia during the Easter Vigil, it will be repeated in many beautiful Easter hymns, in the verse before the Gospel, and during the Octave of Easter in the dismissal at the end of Mass the priest or deacon proclaims.

Emphasizing the connection between Alleluia and music in the liturgy, the rubrics instruct us that in the Mass it should always be sung, never recited. I’ve heard it explained this way: that reciting the Alleluia during the liturgy is like reciting, not singing, “Happy birthday” at a birthday party. Try it . . . it sounds silly.

Alleluia, roughly translated means, “praise God” or “praise the Lord.” As Pope Benedict points out in the reflection cited above, however, the impact of Alleluia goes far beyond a simple definition. It “requires no words because it transcends all words.” It is an expression of inexpressible joy.

There are lots of human experiences that reflect this kind of joy.

It’s the giddy joy of a young man falling totally in love with a beautiful young woman who knows him, understands him, trusts him and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. The expression “falling in love, head over heels” captures the same idea.

It’s the proud, grateful joy of seeing the birth of a first-born child, a miracle of new life created in love, a child touched by God, made in His image and likeness, and destined for eternal life.

It’s the joy of relief in finally bringing a loved one home after a lengthy, grueling stay in the hospital battling a serious, life-threatening illness.

It’s the quiet joy of watching a glorious sunset on a beach in Florida on a warm summer’s evening surrounded by other beach-goers who’ve been hushed into silence by the cosmic spectacle.

And it’s even the frenzied joy of players and fans when their football team wins the championship in the last seconds because of a totally unpredictable, unexpected, crazy turn of events.

All of these earthly events are likely to inspire an inexpressible joy beyond words, but all of them pale in comparison with the joy of the Easter event, the Resurrection of Christ.

The Exsultet, (a word that itself means “rejoice”), sung at the Easter Vigil, also captures the joy of the Resurrection of Christ: “Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory; let this holy building shake with joy!”

“Shake with joy?” Can it be any clearer? Easter is all about joy and it’s reflected most effectively in the word “Alleluia!”

The challenge we sometimes encounter, however, is that Easter not-withstanding, maybe you don’t feel like being joyful. Maybe the joy of the Resurrection of Christ is just a pious thought and not a reality for you. “Alleluia” is the last thing you want to sing or hear. There could be several reasons for this psychological malaise.

Maybe you’re depressed about the violence and terrorism so rampant in our world; or the moral decay and political gridlock of our nation; or some intractable personal problem or family problem that’s plaguing you; or just the never-ending chill of winter and the pattern of potholes you’ve got to navigate every time you leave the house. (Next time your car is violently jarred by a huge pothole, try shouting “Alleluia” instead of what you’d usually say. Maybe it’ll help!)

The fact is the Resurrection of Christ doesn’t promise to end any of these problems. They are, after all, an expression of the imperfection of creation, an inescapable part of our earthly journey. They (or similar problems) were present before, during and after the time of Christ. The Resurrection doesn’t mean that there won’t be problems, sometimes serious problems. And the Resurrection doesn’t promise that you’ll always be happy. Someone who’s always happy, it seems to me, is stunningly out of touch with reality, and usually a little bit irritating.

You see, there’s a difference between daily happiness and the virtue of Christian joy. And it’s the latter that springs from the Resurrection of Christ. It’s the conviction that ultimately Christ will prevail; that when all is said and done, good is stronger than evil, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death.

Pope Benedict puts it this way: “The Alleluia is like a first revelation of what can and shall someday take place in us – our entire being shall turn into a single immense joy.”

So, go ahead – sing it, say it, live it – Alleluia!

And a happy and blessed Easter to all. Alleluia!