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Sing ye Alleluia!

Sing ye Alleluia!
Sing ye Alleluia!
Dr. Wayne Willis

One of my favorite holiday songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia.” Not just a holiday song, its popularity extends to weddings and funerals. It was sung in memorial services after the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook.

“Alleluia” (literally “Praise ye the Lord!”) is about hope, hope in the thick of ordinary things and hope at life’s extremities.

Cohen wrote about 80 draft verses. He sometimes created new lyrics for live performances. Individuals sometimes substitute their own lyrics. The melody, whatever the words, is mesmerizing.

The song’s constant refrain, its chorus ending each stanza, is simply, “Alleluia!” (Greek and Latin for Hebrew “Hallelujah!”). Cohen’s ballad takes us through the range of human experience: through pain and pain relief, joy and grief, feast and famine, mountaintops and black holes, birth and death, through seasons of agony and seasons of ecstasy.

Cohen’s four-syllable utterance of adoration and gratitude was his acknowledgment that, through every circumstance, God is. Cohen, who was Jewish, dialogued with, or argued with God, as did the Psalmist. In the exclamation “Alleluia!,” Cohen reverentially engaged the unfathomable and unnamable numinous that Rudolph Otto termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the tremendous and fascinating mystery.

The only place Hallelujah is used in the Hebrew scriptures is in Psalms. The only time it appears in Christian scriptures is in the concluding chapters of its last book, Revelation, where on four occasions it is sung by the saints in heaven.

Small wonder that Handel named his masterpiece “The Hallelujah Chorus,” which he wrote in 18 days in the summer of 1741. Legend has it that, after composing it, sleep deprived, Handel ran to his window and cried out, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, even the great God.”

Sing ye Alleluia!

In thick and in thin.