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Musical Musings: Prayers and Liturgical Texts


Transcribed by Donald J. Boon

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.

While this article is taken from a volume written well before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it is still relevant from an historical perspective, allowing us to study the evolution of the term Alleluia. Alleluia is now part of each liturgy (Mass and Office) outside the season of Lent, including Masses for the Dead.

The liturgical mystic expression is found

  • in the Book of Tobias 13:22; then
  • in the Psalter; for the first time at the head of Psalm 104 according to the Vulgate and Septuagint arrangement, but at the end of the previous psalm according to the Hebrew text as we have it; after that at the beginning of psalms of praise, as a kind of inviting acclamation, or at the end, as a form of glory-giving ovation, or at the beginning and end, as for the last psalm of all; then
  • in the New Testament, only in the relation of Saint John's vision of Divine service in Heaven as the worship-word of Creation (Apoc 19).

In the old Greek version of the Book of Tobias, in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew psalter, and in the original Greek of the Apocalypse it is transcribed Allelouia. In accordance with that most ancient transcription, our Latin Vulgate gives it as Alleluia in the Old Testament and in the New. Thus it was given in the earliest Christian liturgies of which we have record. Yet, in place of it, for liturgical use, by way of translation, the English Reformers put the form of words we now find in the Protestant Psalter and Book of Common Prayer. The revisers of the authorized Anglican version of the Bible have used the form Hallelujah in the Apocalypse 19:3. To justify this form authors and editors of some recent English Protestant biblical publications have adopted a new Greek form of transcription, Allelouia, instead of Allelouia. [See "New Testament in the Original Greek"; text revised by Westcott and Hort (Cambridge, 1881), and second edition of "The Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint", by Sweete (1895). For change of form, compare "Smith's Dict. of the Bible" (new edit. 1893) and Hastings' "Dict. of the Bible" (1898-1904).]

Alleluia, not Hallelujah, is the traditional Christian and proper English form of transcription. The accent placed as in our liturgical books over u marks its verbal analysis, as that clearly shows in the last line of the Hebrew Psalter: Allelu-ia. It is thus seen to be composed of the divinely acclaiming verbal form Allelu and the divine pronominal term Ia. So, preserving its radical sense and sound, and even the mystical suggestiveness of its construction, it may be literally rendered, "All hail to Him Who is!"--taking "All hail" as equivalent to "Glory in the highest," and taking "Who is" in the sense in which God said to Moses: "Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel; WHO IS hath sent me to you." As such, when was the expression introduced into the Hebrew liturgy? -- Besides reasons proper to the text of the Psalter, and those drawn from a purely philological consideration of the word itself, the data of ancient Jewish and Christian tradition all point to the conclusion that it belonged, as a divinely authorized doxology, to the Hebrew liturgy from the beginning. As to when it was first formed, there seems much reason for holding that we have in it man's most ancient formula of monotheistic faith--the true believer's primitive Credo, primitive doxology, primitive acclamation. That in part would explain remarkable fondness for its liturgical use. As a rule she so uses it wherever joy, consequently triumph or thanksgiving, is to be emphatically expressed. As to the time of its use, in the Eastern Church it is heard at all seasons of the year; even in Masses for the dead, as it formerly was in the West. There, at present, in the Latin Roman Rite, our own, according to Saint Gregory's regulation referred to in his Office, from Easter to Septuagesima it never leaves the Liturgy, except for some passing occasion of mourning or penance, such as Mass and Office for the Dead, in Ferial Masses during Advent, on the feast of the martyred Holy Innocents (unless it fall on a Sunday), and on all vigils which are fast days, if the Mass of the vigil be said. But it is sung on the vigil of Easter (Holy Saturday) and on that of Pentecost, because on each of those vigils, in early ages, Mass was said at night, and so was regarded as belonging to the joyous solemnity of the following day. During Eastertime it is the characteristic Paschal note of varying parts of Mass and Office, constantly appearing at the beginning and end, and even in the middle, of psalms, as an instinctive exclamation of ecstatic joy. Calmet thus expressed the Catholic view of its traditional import when noting (in Psalm 104) that the very sound of the words should be held to signify "a kind of acclamation and a form of ovation which mere grammarians cannot satisfactorily explain;" wherefore the translators of the Old Testament have left it untranslated and, in the same way, the Church has taken it into the formulas of her Liturgy or of the people who use it at any time or place what it may.

 Back to Prayers and Liturgical Texts Index

Part II: Alleluia in Greek Liturgies

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