“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord…”
What do you think of when you hear these words?
For many people, these words are instantly recognized as the opening line to a popular song called Hallelujah. Actually, using the word “popular” may be an understatement. Since the song was written over thirty years ago there have been upwards of 300 different artists who have covered it; Singers as diverse as Jeff Buckley, Justin Timberlake, Neil Diamond, Il Divo, Pentatonix, and pretty much every contestant on American Idol and The Voice. The Jeff Buckley version alone has been viewed on YouTube more than 89 million times. It’s appeared in children’s movies like Shrek and televised telethon following Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.
Nowadays, it seems that almost everyone knows Hallelujah – but that wasn’t always the case. Originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen in 1984, the song was rejected at first by the record label. It eventually found its way onto Cohen’s Various Positions album but even then it went mostly unnoticed for close to a decade until it was popularized by Jeff Buckley in the early ‘90’s and Rufus Wainwright in 2001.
In the five years that it took Cohen to write the song he drafted over 80 verses. That has provided a cornucopia of choices for singers who cover the song. Artists have been free to pick and choose and rearrange the phrases to best fit their interpretation. Each version has its own spin, the music and verses are moved and mixed to emphasize a different subject or an emotion.
Sometimes, the song reminds us of a broken romantic relationship; other times, a struggling faith, a sexual or a spiritual awakening, or any number of other thoughts and themes. As author Alan Light has written “Somewhere along the way, ‘Hallelujah’ reached the kind of rarefied status that only a handful of contemporary songs…have achieved. Its presence in the world reaches far beyond the song itself, and serves as shorthand for some greater idea or emotion.” It’s a unique song in that it doesn’t really belong to anyone.
It’s a great song but I’m sure you’re asking yourself “What does any of this have to do with Christmas?” Well, I’ll answer that in a few minutes. First, since we all now have Hallelujah stuck in our heads, I want to hand it over to our worship band Covenant so we can hear MCC’s take on the song. You may not recognize all of the lyrics but I promise you that they were all written by Leonard Cohen.
[SPECIAL MUSIC Hallelujah Leonard Cohen]
I heard there was a secret chordThat David played and it pleased the LordBut you don’t really care for music, do youWell it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujahYou say I took the name in vainI don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of SongWith nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
What do you think of when you hear these words?
For many people, the story of Jesus’ birth reminds us of family traditions, familiar songs and stories, of candlelight church services, it reminds us of hope, of joy, of love.
We often think of the Christmas story as a single, set-in-stone narrative. A struggling young couple seeking shelter in a stable, a divine child born, and a closing scene with angels, shepherds, wise men, and animals all crowded together under one roof.
However, just like the many takes on Hallelujah, the version of the Christmas story that we are familiar with is a mix of various versions. Different Gospel writers tell the story differently.
Matthew’s gospel wants us to see that the Magi – educated, wealthy, aristocratic, and privileged – bow down before Jesus, placing all that they have aside and giving it up to God. The upper echelon brought low before the baby.
On the other hand, Luke’s gospel wants us to see that God reaches out to the lowly shepherds, dirty, smelly, laboring to protect someone else’s property. Luke reminds us that God connects with those on the bottom rung of society’s ladder. The lowest are lifted up. Each writer has their own spin on Christ’s nativity. Mark and John say nothing about it at all. And that’s okay. The differences are part of what makes it special.
What part of the Christmas story speaks the loudest to you? Which characters stand out? Who do you identify with, or despise, or long to understand?
Your answers may change from year to year. The feelings you get from hearing this story again may transform as you get a fresh take on it.
That’s the beauty of Christmas. That’s the beauty of all of our scripture. No matter how many times we’ve read or heard the words, God cries out to us from the text in new ways – and we are free to respond to God’s call from wherever we are on our faith journey.
There are times in our lives that we can shout a joyous “Hallelujah” to God but, let’s be honest, those moments are sometimes few and far between.
The Christ child was born into a broken world; a world that remains broken today. When we look at the news and see children dying in Aleppo, raging floods and fires, people attacking and killing one another, that joyous Hallelujah is near impossible to raise.
Leonard Cohen’s words convey the sense of hopelessness and confusion and desperation that we often face. But every verse that he’s written – whether happy or sad, lonely or loving – every verse returns to the chorus of “Hallelujah.” Alan Light writes “Cohen is telling us, without resorting to sentimentality, not to surrender to despair or nihilism…this is his offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.”
Cohen reminds us that the holy and divine presence remains even in a life full of ups and downs.. He echoes the message that is heard throughout the Bible – no matter where we are or what we are feeling, God is with us.
We remind ourselves every Christmas – and hopefully every Sunday, every day – that God comes to us in our brokenness. Jesus came to comfort us the way a mother soothes her crying child. Christ calls us to discover the star that shows us the way, whether we are lowly shepherds or exalted kings, the light that leads us to find the hope in ourselves so that we can spread the good news to the world as we hear the call to do our part to bring peace on earth and good will towards humanity.
If we come to Christmas with joy in our heart we can sing Hallelujah
But if we’re here with a heart full of sorrow, we can still cry out Hallelujah
When we’re grieving, when we’re struggling, when we are confused and concerned about what’s going to happen next in our world, we can still go to the Lord of Song with nothing on our tongue but Hallelujah.
No matter how we come to Christmas, searching for something familiar or something revolutionary, whether we prefer the Luke or Matthew or some other version of the Christmas story; if we see ourselves in Mary or the Magi or the shepherds or Joseph or the donkey, the Christmas story helps us rediscover and return to Hallelujah.
There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter what you’ve heard. The gift of the Christmas story is that it will always be here for you, giving you comfort and challenge. The gift of that secret chord that David sang is that the song will always be in your heart, ready to cry out to God no matter where you are. Whether it’s sung in anger or sadness or exuberant joy, God will always hear your Hallelujah, the Christ child will always be there to receive your gifts, and the Holy Spirit will cradle you with Divine strength and love.
This Christmas, what sweeter music can we bring to this our Heavenly King than that ancient word made new by Leonard Cohen, by 100s of artists including Covenant and by our own voices and spirits?
Holy or broken, there is always Hallelujah. Let’s sing that secret cord together once more ….