A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
We all like backstories. I especially enjoy 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 caught me completely off balance. 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 the music was loud. Carefully stored away for most of the year, they were brought out for the Spring revivals with the visiting preacher. Everyone knew when the pastor hit his stride or the offering had been especially good we would hear Mr. Tompkins, normally quiet and attentive, give a little shout. Hesitant at first but then more frequently a few scattered others in the congregation wanted to say something other than “Amen” so they would throw in a “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” now and then.
But “Hallelujah” was not something we said outside of church. We would never have understood what Cohen meant by “a cold and broken Hallelujah” as it was for those extraordinary emotional moments when, so full of enthusiasm, nothing else would do. The rest of life never seemed to merit such an outburst.
So can we as Christians imagine pushing Hallelujah deep into what Cohen called “the ordinary world” or is it still reserved for the extraordinary? 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.
Paul would say this is what he meant by giving 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. It is 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.”