A Broken Hallelujah by Rev. Barbara Merritt December 9, 2007
from Isaiah Chapter 9
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
For thou has broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
from “A Prayer of Praise” by C. S. Lewis
When I first began to draw near to belief in God (an even for some time after) I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should “praise” God: still more in the suggestion the God Himself demanded it. We all despise the person who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Worse still was the statement put into God’s own mouth, “What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.”
It is perhaps easiest to begin to understand praise with inanimate objects. What do we mean when we say that a picture is “admirable”? The sense in which the picture “deserves” or “demands” admiration is this: that admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate response to it; that is if we do not admire, we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something. Many objects both in Nature and in Art may be said to deserve, or merit, or demand admiration.
But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their beloved, readers praising their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and spacious minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read.
Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be. Praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good she is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch. If you hear a good joke, you must find someone to share it with.
“A Broken Hallelujah” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt
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 last August through a choir member (because I didn’t have the courage to ask Will Sherwood directly), I inquired whether the choir could perform this piece. Now Will, while not being a great fan of popular music, is still a “sport.” And he agreed, and the choir agreed and we chose December 9th for its premier performance. I was a happy camper until I actually started looking at the lyrics last week. 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 it took Cohen five years to write this song, and he 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 the magazine 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: “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. Bob Dylan told Leonard Cohen that he especially liked the lines: “even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!” One blogger wrote “this song addresses the doubts and mistrusts of all relationships, from the supposed ultimate relationship between the creator and the created, all the way down to earthly relationships.” Another wrote at some length: “No other story explores as deeply the relationship between romantic love, pain, music and spirituality. Romantic love is heralded as the widest gateway to pain. The song is an ode to the brokenness that comes through love, rejoicing in the beauty of this paradox.” He continues: “The minor fall and the major lift—the fall produces a minor tone, distinguishable 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.” And he goes on: “The betrayed, hurt, broken lover responds not with anger, helplessness or jaded indifference, but rather with a simple and honest declaration—‘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—everyone 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 the 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.
This week our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah. Long ago in the midst of a broken and devastated temple, at a time of war and defeat and oppression, the light in the oil lamps kept going. Those who light candles in the darkness of December are saying: “You win your freedom by acts of praise, with persistent courage, always appreciating what is essential, what endures.”
And 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 AK47) to end it all and take out a few random innocent victims as he goes. But 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 in 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 Hallelujah. He said, “It is a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion. It is 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 to those who defend, and he proclaims: “It doesn’t matter what you heard—whether you’re singing a holy hallelujah or a broken song of praise—there is a blaze of light in every word.” 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.
Galway Kinnel said it far fewer words than Leonard Cohen in a poem he called Prayer:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
“Whatever is is what I want.” 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.