The Regina Caeli and the Alleluia

Now that Easter has come I post two questions and answers on this beautiful season from my Question Time column in The Catholic Weekly. The first is on the “Regina Caeli”, which replaces the “Angelus” during the Easter season.  It is question 130 in my book Question Time 1. The other is on the rich meaning of “Alleluia”, and is question 268 in Question Time 2. Both books were published by Connor Court in 2012.

130. The “Regina Caeli”

Since I was a little girl I have always said the Angelus at midday. Sometimes, however, I have noticed that after Easter my friends invite me to say a different prayer, the “Regina Caeli”, which I do not know. Could you tell me something about this prayer?

Your friends are correct in inviting you to say the “Regina Caeli”, which is said in place of the Angelus during the Easter season; that is, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday inclusive.

The “Regina Caeli”, or “Queen of Heaven”, is a beautiful Marian prayer, shorter than the Angelus, which expresses joy at the Resurrection of Jesus. Unlike the Angelus, there is no one commonly used English translation, but for the sake of those who do not know it, I offer the following as one of the more frequently used versions. The prayer is said with the leader saying the first line and the others saying each alternate verse.

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, Alleluia.

For he whom thou didst merit to bear, Alleluia.

Has risen as he said, Alleluia.

Pray for us to God, Alleluia.

Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, Alleluia.

For the Lord has truly risen, Alleluia.

Let us pray. O God, who by the Resurrection of thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has been pleased to fill the world with joy, grant, we beseech Thee, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, his Mother, we may receive the joys of eternal life, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

As is evident, the “Regina Caeli” overflows with the joy proper to the Easter season. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, is invited to rejoice at the Resurrection of her Son. In the final prayer we ask God the Father that, as we have been filled with joy through the Resurrection, so we may come to experience the joys of eternal life. Thus the sobriety of Lent, with its fasting and preparation for Our Lord’s death, gives way to rejoicing as we commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus and are moved to ask for our own resurrection to eternal happiness in Heaven.

Of unknown authorship, the prayer has been traced back to the twelfth century. The oldest musical score is kept at the Vatican in a manuscript from the year 1171. Around the year 1200 the “Regina Caeli” appeared in a manuscript of the Old Roman chant tradition, where it was used as the antiphon of the “Magnificat” in the Divine Office for the octave of Easter. The “Regina Caeli” was used by the Franciscans as the Marian hymn after Compline in the Divine Office in the first half of the following century. Together with the other Marian anthems, it was incorporated into the Minorite-Roman Curia Office which, through the efforts of the Franciscans, was soon popular everywhere. Pope Nicholas (1277-80), ordered this Office to replace all the older Office books in the churches of Rome. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV decreed that the “Regina Caeli” was to be prayed at the ringing of the Angelus bell during the Easter season. Like the Angelus, it is customarily sung or recited standing.

The prayer has been set to music in both the familiar Gregorian chant version and in polyphony. Among the famous composers to set the “Regina Caeli” to music are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Pietro Mascagni, who used it in the Easter procession of his opera “Cavalleria Rusticana”. Given its antiquity, its beauty, expressing the joy proper to the Easter season, and its Marian character, it is highly desirable that the “Regina Caeli” be learned by all and recited during the Easter season.

268. The meaning of “Alleluia”

One of the things I like most about the Easter season is the increased use of the word “Alleluia” in the Mass. I know it is an exclamation of joy but what does it actually mean and where does it come from?

The word “Alleluia”, sometimes spelled “Halleluia” or “Halleluja”, means essentially “Praise the Lord” or “Hail the one who is”. It is made up of the Hebrew verb for praise (“Allelu”) and the proper name of God, “the One who is” (“ia”), as in the name Yahweh. The latter recalls the answer God gave when Moses asked him for his name: “I am who I am”, Yahweh (Ex 3:14). The word “ia” is thus not the generic name for God, but the specific name for the God who revealed himself to the Israelites as “I am”.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church comments on the name of God: “In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH (‘I AM HE WHO IS’, or ‘I AM WHO I AM’), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery… God, who reveals his name as ‘I AM’, reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them” (CCC 206-207).

The expression “Alleluia”, incorporating this specific divine name, is found in the Old Testament in several places. For example, in the Book of Tobias we read: “The gates of Jerusalem will sing hymns of joy, and all her houses will cry, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed be the God of Israel!’ and the blessed will bless the holy name forever and ever” (Tob 13:17). The English translation used here renders “ia” as “the God of Israel”. And it is clear that “Hallelujah” is a cry of praise, of great rejoicing, of blessing God’s holy name.

The expression appears again at the beginning and end of Psalm 113, or in other versions of the Bible such as the Vulgate or Septuagint, at the beginning of Psalm 114. At the end of that psalm we find: “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 113:9) Again, the expression “Praise the Lord”, or “Halleluja”, comes at a time of particular rejoicing, when a barren woman has conceived a child. The expression “Praise the Lord” comes as the last verse of the so-called “Hallel” psalms, or psalms of praise: Psalms 113-118. It also occurs frequently in Psalms 146-150 at the end of the psalter.

In the New Testament, “Hallelujah” occurs only in the Book of Revelation, in the description of the praise given to God in the heavenly liturgy. For example, “After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just…’” (Rev 19:1-2). The expression comes several more times in the same chapter, including: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready…’” (Rev 19:6-7).

As we see in these texts, “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah” is always used as a hymn of praise of almighty God in the context of worship and great rejoicing. It was used in the Hebrew liturgy and it was incorporated untranslated into the very earliest Christian liturgical texts. For Christians, especially at Easter time, the word takes on the added meaning of a hymn of praise to God for the glorious Resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. “Alleluia” is thus our supreme expression of rejoicing, praise and thanksgiving. We should unite our hearts and minds with our lips when we pronounce this word, lifting up our hearts in exultant praise of God.

St Augustine sums it up: “So now, my brethren, I urge you to praise God: this is what we all say to one another when we say Alleluia. ‘Praise the Lord,’ you say to the one you are addressing, and he says the same to you; and by urging one another in this way, people do what they are urging the other to do. Praise God with the whole of yourselves; it is not only your tongue and your voice that should praise him, but your conscience your life, your deeds” (On Psalm 148, 1-2).