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A broken hallelujah

Praise in the midst of a broken world and a broken heart? Sing hallelujah in the darkest season of the year?
By Barbara Merritt
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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(Christian Sawicki/iStockphoto)

A close friend gave me a CD of her son’s a cappella group at Bowdoin College. On it there was one song I loved, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It had vaguely religious words—hallelujah, King David, and countless references to brokenness. But what I really loved was the haunting melody.

So I inquired whether the choir could perform this piece. Our music director agreed and the choir agreed, and we chose December 9, for its premier performance. I was a happy camper until I began to prepare my sermon and actually started looking at the lyrics. And the more I looked, the more nervous and bewildered I became.

To begin with: Even though there are only a few verses, there is a lot of pain expressed—pain and failure and disappointment. And then I found some extra verses (apparently Cohen wrote some 80 verses). In one of them, he declares: “Love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Well! What exactly are we praising in this little ditty? So I thought I had best read some of what others had written about “Hallelujah.” In Rolling Stone, the reviewer wrote: “The dark, poetic music of Leonard Cohen should be listed on the table of periodic elements—when you discover it, it suddenly seems as necessary as oxygen. . . . ‘Hallelujah’ is concerned with the sanctity of real life and the dangers of real love.” So far, so good.

Then in the online magazine Stylus, someone wrote that in “Hallelujah” Leonard Cohen explains “Judeo-Christian theology, desperation, and sex,” as well as “faith in times of crisis and in times of calm.” Now I’m really getting nervous.

One blogger claims that “Hallelujah” is “the best song ever written.” Another calls it just pop music written by a melancholic composer. In Relevant magazine, Scott Taylor wrote: “‘The minor fall and the major lift’ . . . The fall produces a minor tone, disagreeable to the ear when it stands alone. But together with the major lift, it completes the chord that pleases the Lord. And that ending lift would not be possible without a place from which to rise.” He goes on: “The betrayed, hurt, broken lover responds not with anger, hopelessness, or jaded indifference, but rather with a simple and honest declaration of ‘Glory to the Lord!’”

I had read just about enough! Praise in the midst of a broken world and a broken heart? Sing hallelujah in the darkest season of the year? I turned to my etymological dictionary. What exactly does “hallelujah” mean?

The word consists of two parts. The first, “hallelu” is the imperative commanding form of the word “to praise” and the last part, “jah” is an abbreviation for Yaweh. Hallelujah is the commandment to praise, not the invitation or the suggestion. It is the sacred obligation—the requirement to praise—it doesn’t matter whether you understand your circumstances to be holy, or wholly broken—every one of us is called to sing hallelujah, and it can be a loud and happy song in a major key, or it can be a quiet, persistent melody in a minor key.

In all human circumstances, we are commanded to appreciate. Isaiah described where we stand “in darkness.” And to people like us—imperfect, stumbling, and lost—people who live in the land of the shadow of death—to such people comes a great light. And the yoke of our burdens will be broken. And unto us a child is given—someone wonderful—a Prince of Peace.

The Christian tradition asks us to reflect on the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. But we are not asked to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, or in a quiet monastery of purity and calm. We are invited to celebrate in shopping malls where, it turns out, a depressed and desperate teenager may decide (with an AK-47) to end it all and take out a few random innocent victims as he goes. I don’t have to tell you that this is a genuinely broken world—here, and in Iraq, and in the Sudan, and in Los Angeles, and in Worcester, Massachusetts, in hospitals and prisons and nursing homes, and in the ordinary routine of going shopping. This is the world, the reality, where “love is not a victory march.” Surely, you recognize this world we inhabit. Where no one (for very long) is a stranger to a broken heart. And we go back and forth between appreciation and disappointment, gratitude and complaint—things going smoothly and things falling apart. But what startles me, and I suspect startles many of you, is that in the midst of this realty we are called to appreciate, to celebrate and to sing with the angels: “Peace on earth, good will to all.”

Leonard Cohen himself commented on what he was trying to accomplish in his song. He said, “It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion. . . . It’s a rather joyous song.” And it is this “rather joyous song” that tells us something true about what human existence is all about. Cohen begins with King David, one of the greatest poets of all time, the possessor of the secret chord that “pleased the Lord.” This baffled King sang hallelujah, and at the very same time a woman broke his throne. Bathsheba revealed to King David his all-too human nature. It turns out that even a king who possesses the perfect pitch and deathless prose will have to come to terms with his own fallen nature.

Cohen then speaks to the believers and the skeptics, to those who accuse and those who defend, and he ends the song with a most humble admission:

I did my best, it wasn’t much . . .
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

He says when it’s all said and done, I want only to appreciate what is. I want my eyes to see and my voice to sing out in praise:

Even when it all goes wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

That is, I believe, the task of human life. That is our prayer that we may be allowed to appreciate what is. No longer at war with reality. No longer hoping to get through this life with your heart or your mind intact. But always singing.

December is the right time to raise our voices in songs of praise. It hardly matters what you can find to praise—the sunlight or an evergreen, candlelight or a potato latke, the harmony of the choir or the loveliness of a Christmas carol.

Sing out—it is commanded of you.

Stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on your tongue but Hallelujah.


This essay is adapted from a sermon delivered December 9, 2007 at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts.

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