Now that we are in the Easter season and saying “Alleluia” very often, many people wonder what this word actually means. Here is an answer from one of my columns in Catholic newspapers. It is question 268 in my book Question Time 2.
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).