A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
I think we all like backstories. I especially like the stories behind songs. Did you know Paul McCartney’s original working title for “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs”? Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was originally titled “In The Garden of Eden,” but the lead singer was so inebriated he could not pronounce the words – so they left the title the only way he could say it.
Recently, I read the backstory of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” written and recorded in 1984. Not known as a devout person, it came as a surprise to everyone that Cohen showed up in the studio having written a lyric normally reserved for religious artists. Years later, he said that he had “wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world…”
Cohen went on to say, “The world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend…and reconcile and embrace the whole…mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand …. at all – Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”
His insight completely took me aback. We have all heard sacred words taken in vain or misrepresented but never had I heard a secular artist express such a complete understanding of what I think Scripture means to say Hallelujah.
I was raised in a world where Hallelujah was reserved for those moments at church when emotions were running high and, typically, the music was loud. There were isolated interjections when the pastor hit his stride or the offering had been especially good. A few in the congregation always wanted to say something other than “Amen” so they would throw in a “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” now and then.
But on the whole, Hallelujah was not something we said outside of church. It was saved for Sunday and spring revivals – and certainly not used in the way as Cohen said: “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
So how do we as Christians push Hallelujah deep into what Cohen called “the ordinary world”? How can we embrace it all, even when we don’t understand?
Frederick Buechner would say that praise is not offering God compliments but that “we learn to praise by paying attention.” Nothing special. Nothing highly emotional or even calculated. Not waiting for a right moment or place. Hallelujah comes in the most ordinary ways. We say it when we see beauty in the most ordinary things.
Marilynne Robinson would say, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”
Paul would say this is what he meant when he said to give thanks in all things. Life is joyful and people are kind. So we break bread and give thanks. We say Hallelujah. Life is difficult, irreconcilable, messy and painful, but we still break bread and give thanks. We still say Hallelujah.
At times, it may be a cold and broken Hallelujah. It may not be a shout, but we find a way to murmur God is faithful and we can trust him because we are His.
In the Psalms, Hallelujah is often used both to introduce and to conclude a poem. Everything is contained within them. All the glory and the loss. The exultations and the laments. Sorrow and success. The temporal and eternal. Life and death.
Everything is held between two Hallelujahs. I think it’s true of our lives as well and, in the end, I believe we will all sing Cohen’s words:
“I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”