May 2024 Print

On the Mystical Meaning of the Alleluia and the Tract

from A Mirror of the Church’s Mysteries

Ascribed to Hugh of St. Victor (ca. 1165), translated by Zachary Thomas

Pseudo Hugh’s Mirror of the Church’s Mysteries is a charming introductory handbook to theology written for the Abbey of St. Victor, outside Paris. Its seventh chapter is dedicated to an exposition of the mystical significance of the words and actions of the Mass. Here, the author shows how the Alleluia and the Tract express the mixture of joy and sorrow that Mother Church and with her every Christian soul feels on its journey through the valley of tears. The rich and evocative Biblical imagery is meant to encourage devout meditation and can provide our dull minds with a starting point for prayer during these often long interludes between the Epistle and Gospel.  

There follows the Alleluia, which is a Hebrew word. For these three languages excel the others: Hebrew on account of the Law, Greek on account of wisdom, and Latin on account of government. These three tongues were triumphantly displayed on Christ’s Cross, and the Church sings Her praises in all three languages. So, “Alleluia” is a Hebrew word, meaning “Praise the Lord.” But let us continue.

The Alleluia ends with a melisma which expresses the joy and love of Christian believers, and the great happiness and praise that flowed from their faith after they had heard the Apostles’ preaching, signified in the Epistle. For they not only gave their assent to this preaching, but rejoiced to hear it: Zion hears and is glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice (Ps. 96:8). So we read in the Canticle of Canticles (1:3): We will exult and rejoice in you. And the Bride: My soul failed me when he spoke (Cant. 5:6). The Alleluia signifies the contemplative life, and hence it is symbolically sung on a higher step than the Gradual.1 Likewise, when the Alleluia is repeated after the verse, it signifies the everlasting joy that lies in store for the saints after this life. That is why the Alleluia has few words but a lengthy melisma, for that heavenly joy is greater than words can express, and no language is powerful or perfect enough to reveal its greatness. For who can properly explain what the human heart is not even able to conceive?

And so, since this joy cannot be fully expressed in words, and yet we cannot remain silent on it, the Church puts aside words and bursts out into pure admiration in the melisma, as if to say: “What speech, what tongue could reveal this?” For at some point human words and understanding fail, but love does not permit us to remain silent. So the Church, in Her marvelous way, uses a melisma to suggest, somehow better and even more expressively without words, the joy of God that causes all human speech to cease. The melisma, though it cannot convey the full magnitude of eternal joy, shows us at least that it is unutterably vast.

Now when a Sequence follows, the melisma is not repeated a second time, but the choir sings the Sequence in its place, which also signifies the joy and delights of eternal life. Thus it usually has words that are new or unfamiliar, because the joy of heaven is secret and unknown to mortals. Or else the Sequence symbolizes the praises of eternal life. Thus it is said: Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, O Lord; they shall praise thee for ever and ever (Ps. 83:5). This fits with the Sequence’s praise-flowing text and sweet melody, because in Heaven everything will be filled with praise, and the Heavenly organ’s song will wash over everything with a celestial charm of happiness. For dwelling in thee is as it were of all rejoicing (Ps 86:7). And since the praises of heaven will resound not in human voices, some people symbolically sing the Sequence as a melisma without words. For there will be no need of words to signify the contents of each person’s heart when they are laid out for all to pore over there in the Book of Life.

Now the Tract has a mournful and lugubrious sound, so it represents the tears of the saints in both the active and contemplative life. It is called a “Tract” (from trahere, to drag), because these saints in their sighs draw up groans from the depths of their hearts, for though they rejoice in hope as the Alleluia teaches them to, yet those who dwell in this valley of tears pour forth an upper and lower channel of tears, symbolized in the Tract. On the one hand, they emit tearful groans as they contemplate the grandeur of heaven’s blessedness, mindful of their homeland as they sit by the rivers of Babylon (Ps 136:1). On the other hand, the sight of sinful excesses, others’ and their own, causes them to gush forth tears, even as they are splashed by getting too close to the Babylonian river, or see others totally caught up and swept away downstream by the same racing river. So, because they mourn with regard both to our heavenly joy and our earthly wretchedness, the Tract at times sounds a happy note for the upper channel, as in Jubilate and Laudate, and other times strikes a sad note for the lower channel, as in De profundis and others like it.

And since the saints’ joy in this life is not complete and continuous but is often interrupted, the Church sometimes interposes a Tract, as in Septuagesima. And when she takes up the Alleluia again on Holy Saturday, a Tract follows the Alleluia, because joy in this life profits nothing without tears. On Saturday in Albis, i.e., on the Easter Octave the Alleluia is doubled because once the flesh and soul are glorified together and the saints have arisen with Christ, eternal life will attain a perfection of joy. Hence the Church sings: Haec dies quam fecit Dominus.

Therefore it is fitting that the Church, when she wishes to signify the eternal joy, uses an Alleluia to suggest joy, and at other times, since she lives in mourning here below, uses a Tract to groan and beseech God. For, as she ponders the Paradise that is the divine scriptures, how she is to travel through the paradise of the virtues unto the paradise of heavenly treasures, she exalts; but then as she notices that she is still held back here in the valley of tears, and that she fell from the earthly paradise, she weeps.


1 In the ancient Roman basilicas, the Alleluia and Gradual were chanted on the steps of an ambo.

TITLE IMAGE: Thomas Cooper Gotch, Alleluia, 1896 [Sailko]