Losing My Hallelujah

Light Through Stained GlassCanadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen composed a song decades ago that has only recently impressed itself upon me. Regarded by some critics as one of the greatest songs ever, “Hallelujah” has been covered by dozens of artists, and has appeared in movies, television shows, and albums worldwide. Both sincere and ironic, Gospel and waltz, celebratory and mournful, the song has been described as “tiptoe(ing) the line between salvation and despair.

Of musical note is that the chords economically prance around the circle of fifths in literal step with the lyric, while the melody rises in forlorn expectation before sinking despondently into the hook. At the same time, it is a beautifully crafted story song—David before Saul, David with Bethsheba, Samson and Delilah. For us geek songwriters, it may have one of the most perfect first verses ever penned:

I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

Well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah

The word “hallelujah” is a Hebrew term which roughly translated means “Praise ye the LORD.” It is used in the bible as both an exhortation, i.e., an encouragement to praise God, and as an exaltation, i.e., a direct expression of praise. What completely turns the song upside down for me is that Cohen brilliantly uses the word not only as a term of exhortation and exaltation, but in a more deeply nuanced expression of melancholy, longing, aching.  “Hallelujah,” in just a few skillfully crafted verses, becomes an anthem of the deep longings inside each of us—the longing for spiritual peace, for love without reservation, for hope-filled redemption—and ultimately for God.

The reason why the song has recently captured my attention is because I’ve been spending the last six weeks trying not to sing it. Let me explain.

Lent is the period in the Christian calendar preceding Easter. Traditionally marking the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for His ministry, Lent is a period of abstention and self-reflection, intended to prepare us for Holy Week and the ultimate triumph of Christ over the cross.

In several Christian traditions, the practice of abstention also includes not saying or singing the word “hallelujah” in the liturgy. And a number of years ago, we adopted this tradition as a spiritual practice at my church. So over the last two months or so, I’ve been selecting songs and crafting readings in our worship services that avoid the term. (As a sidebar, there is a inexplicable power and freedom in being able to wholeheartedly sing “Hallelujah!” on Easter Sunday after abstaining from it’s use for seven weeks.) So not singing the word, “hallelujah,” has been an act of worship for me personally, and corporately for my church. And in the process, my longing to sing it again on Easter Sunday grows.

For those of us who are songwriters of faith, there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is something more honest, more real, about the way Cohen uses the term “hallelujah” than that which is more obvious and literal.  As songwriters, our job is not to write a sermon; it is to create art. For art has the capacity to reveal Truth in ways that mere words cannot. We must always be serious and respectful of our calling as songwriters, always striving to go for the deeper meaning, the deeper honesty, the deeper Truth.

Here’s a version by Rufus Wainwright with some different lyrics (you might know this one as the Shrek song). I invite you to listen to the song with fresh ears, and enter into its poetic humanity.

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 song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah

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7 thoughts on “Losing My Hallelujah

  1. Manuel, a very interesting take on abstention and the use of “Hallelujah.” Like many people, this is one of my favorite songs and I particularly like the rendition by the group ‘Ollabelle.’ For me the song is a wonderful combination of the sacred and the mundane, the soul and the spirit; a blending that makes it accessible to both the saved and unsaved; a technique I try to approach in my fiction.

    1. Judith, “Hallelujah” is one of the songs I have in rotation in my piano bar songlist. Sometimes I wonder if the people at the restaurants I play at know I am not performing, but worshiping.

  2. Beautiful post Manuel! I’m not surprised since I so enjoyed last week’s sermon as well. This in one of my favorite hymns as we approach advent. I’m sure we’ll hear many versions on Facebook.

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