Heaven Touching Earth

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There’s no relevance of this image to this post, I just effing love the latest Star Wars film and wanted to include it somehow and figured topless Kylo Ren might not be appropriate.

I’m standing up in the back of a set of pews set off to one side. My tights-clad feet slip on the wood beneath me, a move which is soon going to bite me in the ass, or more specifically, split my side open and ruin the contemplative mood of silent prayer.

I’m not alone.

We’re all there, together. Well, nearly all there. Philip is missing and we can feel it. We’re a body and we’re missing a vital part, waiting eagerly for his arrival so we can be whole again.

Our uniform of albs is hanging up in a corridor round the corner, but the same crosses hang from our necks. These are ours forever, we’ll carry them with us long after we hang up our albs. And in these few days spent with each other, the most profound moments occur when the string and wood are our identifying markers, not the conspicuous robes of white.

We’re adults – young adults, yes – but we’re grown ups. Between us we’ve collected life experiences and life stories that make us unique but which also bind us together. Wounds run into wounds, laughter meets laughter, prayer follows prayer. But there’s something childlike in us all this evening. We’re pretending to be electric guitars, we’re waving our arms and doing crazy dancing. We’ve mastered the art of sitting and speaking antiphonally, but on this evening, we’re doing a new thing: we’re being free. There’s a stupid grin on my face. I can’t remember the last time my soul felt this free.

And in amidst all this, God is.

***

I once ‘celebrated’ New Year’s Eve with someone whose brother had terminal cancer, that twelfth chime of Big Ben signaled the year her brother was going to die and with each bong her sobs grew louder. This time of year is always marked with people reflecting on the year that’s been and deciding on their self-improvement regimen for the new one. But sometimes the New Year is just that; it’s a new year, not a new you. Big Ben’s ringing out doesn’t result in some ontological change.

But if there’s one thing I’ve been learning it’s this: work on yourself. It’s a never ending process and you don’t need to wait until January 1 to begin it. And it’s not a process that’s like an upwards trajectory; there’ll be ups and downs and the triumphs will feel small and the setbacks overwhelming. But you don’t do this alone. It’s why God gave us himself and gives himself through other people.

This was my wish for 2017:

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It sounds more holy and pious than it actually was. There was no great move of the Holy Spirit behind it. And yet, it came more true than I could ever have imagined it would.

***

We’ve finished setting the room for lunch and we sit down in two arm chairs to pray. She takes my hand.

‘Is it okay if I pray in my language, so I’m not having to think about what to say in English?’

‘Of course.’

She speaks. I’ve no idea what she’s saying, but I feel so warm. It’s my turn. She laughs.

‘You just prayed for me the exact words I prayed for you.’

And in that moment, something has happened. Something so ordinary and yet it feels so extraordinary.

***

We’re all together. One body. One family. And our brave and beautiful brothers and sisters say ‘yes’ and it’s like a celebration deep in my soul. And then another chance to say ‘yes’ again. And it’s terrifying and yet I feel safe. And we say it, one by one.

And Heaven touches earth.

The Father kisses his children. And nothing changes but everything does. You’re no more loved than you were moments before, but you accept it more and love bursts through the caverns of your soul. And those promises you made to those strangers around you, to choose you and to love you, you realise they’re being said to you, but being said to you by friends. And you’re safe. And you’re not alone.

***

‘I have never left you.’ It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s at once painful and healing. And it’s Heaven touching earth.

‘We’re here for you.’ Do these two community members of mine realise the magnitude of what they’ve said? It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s Heaven touching earth.

***

Heaven touching earth is not just in the spectacular, it’s in the everyday. The act of love, the word of kindness, the laughing and crying and bleeding and scarring. It’s in the bit of Christ that lives in all of us, the bread of community and communion. It’s in the quotidian decisions where the Holy Spirit gently taps on the door.

Heaven touching earth is in the chaplain, after having listened to you complain for ten minutes, uttering six words which change the course of your year. It’s in the couple from church who, without having realised it, have gently dismantled a barrier you’d been holding onto for ages. It’s those glorious teenagers who have stolen your heart, who keep you up at night, and who experience Jesus in such beautiful, childlike ways. It’s five hours after a lunch meeting in a Lebanese restaurant and realising these colleagues you love are actually friends you love. It’s the colleague who cries when she prays because this is her vocation and she’s so in tune with God’s heart. It’s those people you said ‘I choose you’ to. It’s family being family. It’s sitting in the crypt and having a head resting on your shoulder.

It’s the realisation that you didn’t seek out Heaven touching earth. No, it sought out you. ‘Because, Hannah, I have never left you,’ says the Lord.

‘I believe you,’ I say in return.

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Hear The Angels Sing: Glory To The New-Born King!

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Part  4 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Please do consider supporting our Christmas Appeal.

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the new-born king!”

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the chapel of a former Carmelite monastery in Cornwall. As it housed an enclosed order, the monastery itself is designed to physically create the set-apartness of the nuns who lived, worshipped and served there for many years.

In the chapel there is a round stained-glass window that is just above the main crucifix, which is itself just above the altar. The window depicts what is beyond the monastery’s walls: rolling hills which lead down to the sea, and, perhaps optimistically for Cornwall, the sun blazing through a blue sky.

As I sat in the chapel, cross-legged on the floor, clothed in my brilliant white alb (prayer robe), my eyes were drawn from the gold cross on the altar, to the large crucifix, and finally to the iridescent window.

Suddenly these words flooded my mind: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; who was, and is, and is to come.”

I don’t know for how long I was in the chapel, saying those words over and over again. I said them with many different intonations, from awe and wonder to praise and adoration, and also to a bit of disbelief. “Holy God? You are holy and yet you’re with me here, in this nondescript place? How are you so holy and yet you’re meeting me here so gently?”

When I was a young Christian, I liked my God with a heavy helping of spectacle. I grew up in the charismatic tradition where God did Big Things, but the catch was he only seemed to do them for a couple of weeks in the year and you had to be at this particular Christian festival in order for him to do them.

One of the things I am (slowly!) learning in my walk with God, and which was really made clear to me as I sat in that chapel, was that God’s glory is for the everyday. It is the quotidian spectacle: the extraordinary permeating the ordinary.

There is a paradox in how God reveals himself to us. He does move in the spectacle, in the holiness so bright it is blinding. But he also moves in the everyday, in the humanly comprehensible. This paradox is made abundantly clear in the carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

God has come in Christ, he is the heaven-born Prince of Peace and yet “mild he lays his glory by”. God is just as much on the throne as he is on the road to meet us, arms flung wide, waiting for us to turn back to him.

In Advent, we wait for the display of the Word made flesh. In many ways it is a Big Thing – shepherds on the backside of a hill are overwhelmed by a heavenly host; magi from far off lands follow a burning star; there is nothing simple about the miracle of birth, not least the miracle of a virgin birth.

But spectacles are like fireworks: beautiful, impressive and finite. If this was all we waited for, longed for in Advent, then what would be the point?

In theology, we talk about the appearance of God as a theophany. Traditionally, it refers to a visible manifestation of God, along the lines of the burning bush and the pillar of cloud and fire. In Isaiah, the prophet says he “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne” and that the seraphim around him called out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah says, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Theophany in this context is spectacle; something so amazing, yet an experience which is frustratingly finite.

In Rembrandt’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, there is the theophany-spectacle. In his trademark chiaroscuro technique, the Big Thing of the incarnation is illustrated through the dazzling light of the Christ child; light and life to all he brings. In another signature Rembrandt move, he paints himself into the scene as a shepherd kneeling before the baby with his hands clasped in prayer, his back to us. He has positioned himself this way deliberately, so that we can enter into the scene through this figure. We, too, can be before the Son of God.

The incarnation means we can look God in the eye. It is the gift of grace in the theophany of the ordinary; all the magnificence of the spectacle with the permanence of the everyday. In John’s Gospel, we read of the theophany of the Logos come to earth and then shortly afterwards encounter Jesus at the well, offering an ostracised woman the chance to drink.

In Advent we wait for what we have already received: God with us. God is with us. God is with us! It is incredible and miraculous, and a demonstration of divinity so compassionate and merciful and holy it is near-on impossible to comprehend.

And yet, the event we wait for in Advent, the Word becoming flesh, means we can journey through each day with the knowledge of who God is. It is the theophany of the ordinary; all the spectacle of our holy God with all the love of the God who humbled himself to birth in a stable and death on a cross.

On behalf of all of us at Viva, I wish you a very happy Christmas. May you know the everyday joy of the holy God with us.

***

This is the last in four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Read the previous reflections here: Advent 1Advent 2, Advent 3

Light Actually

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A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

In the beginning of the classic Christmas film Love Actually, Hugh Grant’s character says in a voiceover:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there… If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that love actually is all around.

It’s a nice sentiment and yet often when I look at the state of the world, it’s hard to feel anything but gloomy. Maybe I’m too much of a pessimist, perhaps I am just a cynic, but I look at the world and I just feel a lot of despair. The UN has declared a humanitarian crisis due to the famine in Yemen, there’s a game of nuclear war chicken being played out via Twitter, homelessness has doubled in the UK in the past two years, on average this year, a woman has died every three days from domestic violence, and these Dreaming Spires of our city mask the fact that 1 in 4 children here live in poverty. As lovely as the saccharine sentiment of Heathrow’s arrivals gate as a conduit of love is, it doesn’t really seem to be enough.

In the face of what feels like unrelenting tragedy and pain and despair, the prophet Isaiah presents us with some simultaneously challenging and inspiring words. He says:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captive and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn, and…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.

What is this good news the prophet speaks of that we are to proclaim? Well, it is nothing less than the good news this season of Advent points us towards, the good news that a saviour has come for each and every one of us and that saviour’s name is Jesus. It’s unequivocally good news; it’s amazing news! And yet, does it ever feel like a bit of an impossible endeavour to really share this good news?

When I was an undergrad and part of the Christian Union, we used to have a week each year called ‘Events Week.’ And it was called ‘Events Week’ because ‘Missions Week’ was deemed too Christian for the non-Christians we were trying to reach. The week consisted of a series of talks on frequently asked questions about Christianity, with a flashy big name in Christian apologetics brought in to deliver talks challenging enough to convince people to give their lives to Jesus.

And then the rest of the week involved us members of the CU standing in strategic places around campus to hand out flyers for these talks, but we also had to wear luminous yellow hoodies with navy writing on. I really cannot overstate how horrendously yellow this hoodie was. And it was so embarrassing having to wear this hoodie every day for a week. I used to put it on and just cringe and then have person after person after person ignore me as I tried to hand out flyers. Do you know how much effort it takes to deliberately ignore someone who is wearing a hideously yellow hoodie? Not even my flatmates could be persuaded to come to these events and for the rest of the year I had to put up with them asking me why I wasn’t wearing my super attractive yellow hoodie. And my main take away from that week was that I was rubbish at mission, rubbish at proclaiming the good news. And so, I never did another Events Week. Why bother, it’s not like I’d bring anyone to Jesus anyway?

If John the Baptist had been part of my uni CU you just know he would’ve loved the yellow hoodie. He’s just built for that kind of thing. And yet, this passage in the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us some crucial things about him that make his example seem not so unattainable after all. He came as a witness to testify to the light of Jesus, he himself was not the light, he was not the saviour. People are drawn to him because they see something in him, and they mistake him for the messiah because he has the light of God in him. His proclaiming of the good news is not some heady combination of extroversion, charisma, and apologetics training. His proclaiming of the good news is the light of God within him that is spilling out into his everyday life as light which draws people in.

This up-ends everything I believed constituted mission, constituted proclaiming the good news. Because I have the light of Jesus in me, and you have the light of Jesus in you. We began this term looking at this, we are the light of the world. We testify to the ultimate light by being the light in this somewhat gloomy world.

And what does it look like to be this light? Well, it’s in proclaiming the good news by binding up the broken-hearted, comforting those who mourn, and bestowing on hurting people crowns of beauty instead of ashes. It’s in doing for other people, what Christ has done for us. Because we have his light in our gloom, his saving for our poverty, his binding for our hearts, his comfort for our mourning, his crown for our hurt. All we need to do is let that shine through.

How do we do this? Praying for people, taking the time to ask people how they are and genuinely wanting to know the answer, helping at something like the winter night shelter, helping with Café Church, checking in on vulnerable neighbours, to the many great charitable endeavours I know so many people in our church family are a part of.

We’re going to be talking more about Alpha towards the end of this service, and I had the privilege, and I really do mean privilege, of helping to run the Alpha Course we held at the beginning of this year. I say this totally sans-hyperbole, but it was one of the best things I have ever been a part of. And what I loved was how our church family pitched in to help, from making meals, to doing the washing up, to praying for the course – and all that was a great example of proclaiming the good news by the light of God within us spilling out into the world around us through those acts of service.

Let’s be encouraged! To proclaim the good news of our saviour we don’t need some kind of special training or expert skills, we just need to recognise that Christ is in us, that he loves us and has saved us, and let his light within us spill over into our everyday lives.

And if you’re here and you don’t yet know Jesus, but you’re intrigued by him and this light he gives, then you’ve come to the right place to be shown the reality of his good news, so please do come and ask one of us if you want to hear more, because we’d really really love to tell you.

So let’s look at the world: it’s broken, it’s hurting, it’s gloomy. But we’re in it and we have God with us, Christ in us, the Spirit upon us, so if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that light actually is all around.

 

Hear The Angels Sing: The Dear Christ Enters In

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Part 3 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Take a look at our Christmas Appeal.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

On Christmas Day 2011, the message of the Gospel was calmly and genially delivered by a octogenarian evangelist and broadcast live across the UK. It was the Queen’s Speech. In it she said:

God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer: ‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us we pray. / Cast out our sin / And enter in / Be born in us today.’ It is my prayer that on this Christmas Day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

One of the messages of Advent that runs throughout the carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, is that God comes to us, but we have to choose to receive him. His presence is a gift – a wondrous gift – but we have to make the decision to receive it.

In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Christ is described as being the light that shines in the darkness. John the Baptist precedes Jesus and he repeatedly and emphatically denies claims that he is the Messiah. But people wanted to follow him and he had to keep pointing them towards Jesus.

Following the light isn’t always as simple as it sounds, even in the darkness. The hallway light in my house has been broken for several weeks. If my housemate and I were to fix it, then our downstairs would be filled with light. But with just one swipe, we can turn on the torch on our phones and that tiny spot of light can navigate us to where we need to be.

Fixing the light requires working out what kind of bulb it needs, acquiring that bulb, finding something to stand on to reach the light and, if it’s a bayonet fixture, spending a frustrating few minutes trying to get it to stay in whilst yelling about how screw fixtures are superior. Is that stress really worth it for light?

In William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’, he depicts the various ways that Christ is light: he carries a lantern, an echo of Psalm 119: 105 and the lantern itself is covered in stars and crescents as a reference to his message of relevance for the whole world. The scene is set at night, a metaphor for our postlapsarian or post-fall of humankind world and not only our need for light but also our refusal to acknowledge that we need the light.

Jesus stands at a door, knocking. When asked about the meaning of this, the artist explained that “the closed door was the obstinately shut mind; the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrance of sloth,” and when asked why the door had no outside handle, he replied, it is the door of the human heart, and that can only be opened from the inside.

God comes to us in the most spectacular ways; from the manger to the cross to the road to Emmaus covered in scars. He comes to us, but he won’t enter in unless we ask him to. He comes and we see a bit of the light, but there is always more light to be found when we ask.

At Viva, we cannot achieve things without God’s help or with less of God’s help. We could take his charge to love our neighbour, run with it and do good things with that little bit of light. Or we could let him do extraordinary things through us as vessels of his love and light. It takes patience. It takes perseverance. And it takes a lot of prayer!

After Christmas, we will come to the story of Simeon, the man promised that he would not die without seeing the Messiah. In compline, or night prayer, the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon is always sung: “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace / Your word has been fulfilled. / My own eyes have seen the salvation / which you have prepared in the sight of every people / A light to reveal you to the nations / and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon waited patiently; he persevered until he encountered the whole light; and he prayed. In Advent, we wait for God’s coming and he waits for our saying ‘come on in.’

He has come for you; will you let the dear Christ enter in?

This is the third of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Click here to read the first and click here to read the second in the series. Look out for the final one published next Sunday.

Hear The Angels Sing: Two Thousand Years Of Wrong

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Part 2 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Please do consider supporting our Christmas Appeal.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

1849:
14,000-15,000 civilians are massacred in Transylvania during the Hungarian Revolution. 96 inmates of an overcrowded workhouse in Ireland die from famine-related conditions, a record high for the Great Famine. The republican government of Sicily is crushed. As part of the ongoing repression of Christianity, Ranavalona I of Madagascar orders four Christians be burnt alive and fourteen others executed.

In the US, still in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, the seeds of discontent are being sewn for what will become the American Civil War. Against this backdrop of strife and violence and suffering, a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts finds melancholy as his muse and writes a poem (we now know as ‘It came upon a midnight clear‘) which is almost a plea to humankind: ‘hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.’

2017:
The UN has warned that the world is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with up to 20 million people at risk of starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria.

A terrorist attack targets children at a pop concert in Manchester, killing 22 and injuring over 100. Hurricanes devastate Puerto Rico, causing many deaths and billions of dollars of damage. 58 people are killed and 546 injured in a gun massacre in Las Vegas.

In the space of 24 hours, more than 4.7 million people use #metoo about sexual harassment and assault. A magnitude 7.3 earthquake in Iraq and Iran leaves 530 dead and over 70,000 homeless. An attack at a mosque in Sinai kills 305 and leaves hundreds more wounded.

The world has, indeed, ‘suffered long’. The joyful waiting we endure in Advent for God with us is held in tension that in the birth of Jesus, as soon as the Word is made flesh, the countdown to his death begins. It feels macabre to even contemplate death alongside birth, especially the birth of a baby, and yet we are forced to.

As Mary and Joseph, and the haphazard group of worshippers, celebrate the birth of Jesus, ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ (Jer 31: 15)

Maíno’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ is an enormous piece of work; it’s physically imposing. At its display in the National Gallery last year, if you sat on the bench in the middle of the room to look at it, you came eye level with a lamb, its feet bound, its final living expression one of anguish. A grieving shepherd holds the lamb’s, his eyes are shut tight, as a final barrier against tears.

It’s an obvious foreshadowing of Christ’s passion. But there is even more meaning to be found in the shepherd and his sheep in the dark beneath the Christ-child with his parents, lit resplendently. But there is also a predominantly hopeful and joyful meaning to that image.

For just as Christ is the lamb upon the throne, so is he also our shepherd. We are wounded sheep, we are at war with each other, two thousand years of wrong treatment of our fellow human beings, and in our pain and in our despair, our good shepherd sees us and holds us to himself. In quieting us with his love, we can again hear the love-song which the angels bring.

God incarnate means we can come as we are: human, fallible, wounded by people and wounding people, comforted by Christ through others and comforting others through Christ in you. We can recognise the pain in the world and know that it is not God’s plan, but we can do something.

For everyone at Viva, from the staff in head office to the networks around the world, the two thousand years of wrong against children are not ignored or dismissed – but we can do something.

We can be that voice or that presence which comforts people, which does not flinch in the face of unrelenting anguish, but holds on. We can stop the cycle of man at war with man, in the myriad contexts that war can be.

So this Advent, hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

***

This is the second of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Click here to read the first in the series and look out for more published on the next two Advent Sundays.

Hear The Angels Sing: Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall Come!

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‘Hear The Angels Sing!’ is the Advent series I’ve written for work, which they’re graciously allowing me to cross-post here. You can support Viva’s Christmas Appeal 2017 here.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent is a special time of the year. It’s a time of waiting expectantly for what is to come; waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, this miraculous moment when heaven touched earth and God made his dwelling among us. And then there is the waiting for what is yet to come, the promise we live with that Jesus will come again.

Advent is about our waiting and God’s coming. The Latin adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia. It’s used 24 times in the New Testament and 16 uses of it refer to the second coming of Christ.

There’s a tension present in our waiting for the Parousia, the certainty of it coming and the uncertainty of when it will come. But the hope the certainty we have engenders, permeates our waiting and expecting far beyond the uncertainty.

In the advent carol ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ that longing for God’s coming is repeated throughout the song. The longing is sometimes out of despair, asking for the Saviour to ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.’

But that longing is always in the context of rejoicing because it will not be in vain: ‘Emmanuel shall come.’ Emmanuel, God with us, is a perennial truth. So be glad, take heart, and rejoice!

We put our hope in the mystery made flesh. In the incarnation, humanity and divinity collide; it is a spectacular and emphatic ‘yes’ proclaimed by God over human beings; ‘yes’, you are my children and ‘yes’, you are my very good creation.

The incarnation speaks of the profound commitment of God to his children.The theologian, Rowan Williams, says of the incarnation:

Jesus of Nazareth is the face of God turned toward us in history, decisively and definitively. All this life is God’s act. The Church did not invent the doctrine of the incarnation: slowly and stumblingly, Christians discovered it. If Jesus is translucent to God in all he does and is, if he is empty so as to pour out the riches of God, if he is the wellspring of life and grace, what then? He is God: in infancy, in death, in eating and drinking, in healing and preaching… He is there for all, because he has made himself God’s ‘space’, God’s room in the world… God and humanity are knotted together there in that space of history.

Human beings matter to God. We need only look to God in Christ so see that is true. It means we have a duty to honour human beings and make the way for those without hope, without the comfort of longing for God with us, to have that certainty-in-mystery.

At Viva, our mission is clear: children matter to God and therefore children matter to us. We wait expectantly for God to ‘make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery’ and yet seek to bring it about now for children at risk, in whatever humanly-limited way we can.

There’s a beautiful painting by an early Netherlandish painter, Geertgen tot Sint, Jans called ‘Nativity at Night’. The painting depicts a tiny baby Jesus as an emanating source of light, with Mary and angels kneeling around him in the foreground, and an angel appearing to shepherds in the background. In the painting, Emmanuel has both come and is coming.

It is the paradox of faith in oil on oak: the now and not yet; the hope and uncertainty. And yet, despite all that we can – we must – rejoice. God has come. God is coming. God will come.

In this Advent season, let us rejoice in our longing, let us wait with joyful expectance, and let us bring about his coming in whatever way we can for the people around us in celebration of the unequivocal divine ‘yes’ to human beings God made manifest beginning in the birth of Jesus.

This is the first of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Look out for more published on the next three Advent Sundays. 

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The folks over at Bible Society are running #AdventChallenge – a chance to daily acts of biblically-inspired kindness in the run up to Christmas. In a world where Advent Calendars have become about extravagance, hedonism, and extortionate cost, counting down the Advent days through acts of kindness is a wonderful witness to the light of Christ’s coming.

The Tasty Nativity

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A foretaste (lol) of what’s to come.

A few years ago, in a simpler time where the Student Loans Company gave me money rather than charged me interest higher than my salary-dictated loan repayments, my friend Susie and I combined our two favourite loves of chocolate and Jesus to tell the nativity story. What you can’t tell from the photos is that the backdrop is a mouldy, freezing, slug-infested house full of second year undergrads whose main communication method was passive aggressive notes on the fridge. Again, simpler times!

Rather than write a hot take on a steak bake, here’s the story of divinity’s collision with humanity (where Jesus is portrayed by a jelly baby in a hollowed-out mini roll as a manger).

5

Luke 1:26-28, Luke 1:29-31.

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, to a virgin whose name was Mary. The angel said to her ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. You will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.’

Side note: continuing the perpetuation of Mary in blue even though it was highly unlikely she ever wore that colour. 

6

Luke 1:32-38.

‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’

If you’re wondering how we made this happen, the answer is folded over sticky tape.

8

Matthew 1:19-21.

Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

10

Luke 2:1-2.

Now in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree than a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria). And everyone went to their own town to register.

Side note: does anyone else get the Calypso Carol stuck in their head when they read this verse? 

13

Luke 2:3-5.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem to the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

Fun fact: there is no mention of a donkey in the Christmas story, also, for the sake of historical accuracy, Mary probably didn’t ride a reindeer to Bethlehem either.

25

Luke 2:6-7

27

Luke 2:6-7

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in a manger, because there was no guest room available at the inn.

Freddie the innkeeper looks like a real jerk with that grin if you imagine him turning away a pregnant lady. Also <insert millennial rant about the price of Freddos here>

23

Luke 2:8-14.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord… Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praying God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

Our shepherds don’t look that terrified, if I’m honest. And the angel and heavenly host contingent don’t look that fearsome, either. 

30

Luke 2:15-20.

The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Please note the ox and the ass in the back right hand corner and the sheep in the right corner who appears to have keeled over. Actually, don’t note that, that’s bad for (marshmallow) animal welfare.

16

Matthew 2:1-8.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed… Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’

Yes, I know Herod looks the same as Caesar Augustus but I promise they are two very different chocolate Santas. Susie and I believe in equality which meant we bought an even number of all chocolate items. 

31

Matthew 2:9-12.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his Mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I knew I was a legit Anglican when I stopped being annoyed at not being allowed to add the wise men to the nativity set before Christmas and started silently (and not so silently) judging other people who did. Hold your horses until Epiphany, people!

32

In all seriousness though, listen to these amazing words from the beginning of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God became man and made his dwelling among us. If you have ever doubted the extent to which God loves us, he rendered the heavens and came down to us. In the incarnation, divinity and humanity collide and we witness the glory of it. And we all witness it: marginalised women who the rest of society scorns, those whose lives are hidden and humble, the people who are strangers to us, we all get given the opportunity to become children of God.

Meeting God on Punishment Beach

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Blow through the caverns of my soul.

‘So, how was the retreat?’

‘Er…’

I’ve recently returned from being on retreat with the Community of St Anselm. The title of it was ‘Life in the Holy Spirit.’ How was it? Hard to describe. And the lessons learnt from it, the moments of divine encounter will be processed more fully over the coming days, weeks, months, maybe even years.

We went down to the beach one day; the part we went to was rocky, the clamber to the sea made even more precarious by the blanket of seaweed. ‘This is a beach?’ Someone used to white sand and sapphire oceans asked. ‘It’s a punishment beach!’ Joked another. Punishment Beach. The promise of beauty and freedom with the reality of the risk of danger and where the only thing which is certain is uncertainty.

Sometimes life with God feels like Punishment Beach. You know it’s meant to be incredible, that the promise of abundant life is for you, and yet you punish yourself with striving, trying to earn the un-earnable, losing sight of the promise of love and slipping on the seaweed of lies that draws your eyes down to the danger, not up to the hope.

And then you join in a prayer prayed through the centuries.

‘Come, Holy Spirit.’

***

Formation is never-ending. God is not a God of the gaps when faith and reason kiss each other. Our ‘yes’ is a gift of grace where it’s no longer about living for God but living in Him; where you look for the work of God, not saying I will work for God.

In community, prayers you absent-mindedly prayed before you came are beautifully and joyfully answered. In fear of going down the steep hill, unsure as to whether you’ll make it back up again, someone offers their hand and you realise it’s okay to take it. You take the permission to be vulnerable and in enters God. It stings. He goes deeper. It’s agony. Why now, God? Why here? Because you don’t go into the wounded places alone.

We choose to live transparent lives; we choose to trust. Sometimes you have to bleed in the intimate public that is intentional community. God shows his love for you through other people. The people you laugh with, cry with, share with, listen with, pray with, sing with, serve with, praise with, dance with, be in silence with. And the gift of their trusting you with their story feels like the myhrr laid at Jesus’ feet, a gift, a treasure.

‘What is Jesus saying?’

‘I have never left you.’

‘And do you believe him?’

It’s not about emotions. But it is about trust. And risk. And freedom. You are worthy of love just because of who you are. When you all journey together, you gently wrestle the links of each person’s chains from them. It might be a long journey, but that’s okay. We’re all here, together. We offer our trust and say again ‘I choose you.’

And so at Punishment Beach, I found no punishment. Only mercy, and compassion, the whisper of God and the shouts of my community in chorus: ‘I love you.’

‘I’ll Stand Before The Lord Of Song:’ The Reception History of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

leonard-cohen-1960s

Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016.

One year since the legendary singer, songwriter, poet, author, and ladies man died, Leonard Cohen’s words are still as haunting and poignant and beautiful as ever. His most famous work, ‘Hallelujah,’ from whose lyrics this blog has stolen its title from, is a theological masterpiece. Let me explain…

My songs have come to me. I’ve had to scrape them out of my heart. They come in pieces at a time and in showers and fragments and if I can put them together into a song and I have something at the end of the excavation I’m just grateful for having it.[1]

Poet, author, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is a multitude of identities. He is simultaneously a caddish lothario and doting father, a writer equally comfortable with the erotic and the esoteric and existential, an obedient Jew and a dabbler in Buddhism. His popularity over his decades-long career had been waning until a song from his 1984 album, Various Positions, was covered by increasingly well-known artists, before becoming an anthem of the reality television show age. Since then, the song has exploded in popularity, inspired much debate and discussion over its meaning or meanings, and has raised Cohen’s profile. The song is ‘Hallelujah.’ It is a multifaceted song, lyrically rich yet melodically relatively simple; it incorporates love and desire with biblical and theological imagery and it is these latter elements in particular which have contributed so significantly to the song’s popularity. This essay seeks to explore the identities of Cohen, especially his religious and philosophical leanings, before exploring how he incorporates biblical and theological ideas into his works. It will then examine the reasons for ‘Hallelujah’s’ popularity and impact, before interrogating the song for its various meanings.

The Formation of Leonard Cohen

Born in 1934 in Montreal, Cohen was the only son of Nathan and Marsha Cohen, and his grandparents were some of the founding families of the Jewish community in Montreal, featuring prominent rabbis and members of the Canadian army. Indeed, Cohen’s father, ‘Lieutenant Nathan Cohen, number 3080887, became one of the first Jewish commissioned officers in the Canadian army,’[2] and his gun from World War I, a .38, was a source of fascination to his young son. Arguably the most transformative event in Cohen’s childhood was the death of his father when he was only nine years old. ‘Emotion is autobiographical,’[3] Cohen once commented. His father’s death and the aftermath subsequently permeated some of his work. His first novel, The Favourite Game, whose hero, Laurence, bears a striking resemblance to Cohen, features a scene where Laurence and his sister both steal a look at their father in his coffin and discuss why someone had dyed his moustache black.[4] This version of events also appears in Cohen’s short stories “Ceremonies,” “My Sister’s Birthday,” and “Nursie Told Us The News.”

Leonard’s nanny informed Leonard and [his sister] Esther that they would not be going to school that morning because their father had died in the night. They should be quiet, she said, because their mother was still sleeping. The funeral would take place the following day. “Then the day dawned on me,” Leonard wrote. “But it can’t be tomorrow, Nursie, it’s my sister’s birthday.”[5]

The innocence and poignancy of this detail as it appears in the adolescent Cohen’s first forays into writing is especially moving. Due to the frequency of his father’s ill health in the years preceding his death, tension had arisen between his family unit and Cohen’s paternal uncles, and he recounts the strain on their relationship in The Favourite Game and in his poems ‘Rites’ and ‘Priests 1957.’ From an early age, grief and trauma were hallmarks of Cohen’s life, and have since become permeating themes within his work.

In terms of religion, Cohen’s father ‘was a conservative Jew, not fanatical, without ideology and dogma, whose life was made up of domestic habit and affiliations with the community.’[6] But for Cohen,

the rituals of the Jewish religion, with their sung recitations, were an early influence, and young Leonard had particularly enjoyed reading the Book of Isaiah at the side of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Klein. The key attraction for Leonard was not [just] spiritual, however, but simply the chance to spend time with his grandfather; the desire to sit at the feet of a holy man transcended the source and nature of the holiness that motivated him.[7]

Above all, Judaism was an identity marker for Cohen, and he was encouraged by his literary heroes and mentors in the Jewish Canadian cluster in Montreal in the mid to late twentieth century, ‘to focus on his Jewish heritage.’[8] His two most prominent mentors were the writers A.M. Klein and Irving Layton. For the former, Cohen wrote the affecting poem ‘To A Teacher’ reflecting on Klein’s mental breakdown which rendered him mute for the last years of his life. Layton, meanwhile, was a ‘rough and tumble poet rogue, [who] became a substitute father in many ways, a guiding rebel,’[9] and Cohen learnt as much about writing and Judaism from Layton as he did womanising. What is curious amongst the writers who emerged from Montreal, like Klein, Layton, and Cohen, is the amalgamation of identities they subsumed. They were Canadians but with Eastern European backgrounds, Anglophones in a Francophone area, Jewish but practically so, rather than religiously. His ‘Canadianness’ and his Jewishness inform each other, and Cohen remarked that biblical images in his work ‘come naturally to me because I was brought up in Montreal where there are a lot of symbols of the different religions. I guess my reading of the Bible has contributed, but there has always been that kind of imagery in my world.’[10]Out of all the identity markers, it is Jewishness which persisted in his canons of work and for Cohen, a prolific writer, religion and religiosity has proved to be an enduring influence.

Biblical Reception History in Leonard Cohen

‘”How important do you think your being Jewish is in what you do?”’[11] asked filmmaker Harry Rasky of Cohen as he filmed a documentary on him.  Cohen replied,

”Well, to have had the privilege of knowing an old tradition it has been, I think, decisive in my own life…the Bible is, I guess, the most important book in my life…it was the English Bible, that language, that touched me, those concerns for the way the voice is raised for instance in the songs of lamentations, the sense of grandeur in the prophets, the sense of chaotic revelation in the Book of Revelations. Those kinds of modes of speech, where the heart is beating fast, there is no other book that has that scope. It really touched me, the Jewish liturgy, the sound of the Jewish voice raised in prayer, or adoration or praise, those are the kinds of modes that touched me and informed me.”[12]

There is a fluidity in Cohen’s theological influences; there is a familiarity and fundamentality for him in Jewish traditions and liturgy, but he is similarly influenced by Christian texts, and especially the language and imagery of them. The importance of the Bible in Cohen’s writing cannot be overstated; the images and references from the nuanced to the overt are everywhere, a consistent presence in all his volumes of poetry, as well as in both his novels. In his 1956 collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, thirteen out of the forty-four poems contain explicit religious or biblical imagery or themes. He deals with anti-Semitism in ‘For Wilf and His House,’ yearns for a messiah in ‘Prayer for Messiah,’ and writes of Moses, Job, and David in ‘Saviours.’ In ‘Song of Patience,’ Cohen reflects on Kateri Tekakwitha, the first First Nations saint who, following a quasi-conversion to Catholicism in 1678, practiced a hybrid of Mohawk spirituality with the penance ritual inspired by Catherine of Siena, from whom Kateri took her baptism name, (Kateri is Mohawk transliteration of Catherine). Kateri, who took mortification to its extremes, was a source of fascination to Cohen who used her story as inspiration for his second novel, Beautiful Losers, and in ‘Song of Patience’ describes falling in love with her, she who ‘in her hand she held Christ’s splinter.’[13] Reflecting on Kateri and her penance rituals, Cohen stated, that

in our age of convulsion, we must “rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol, not just an experiment in sadism or masochism or arrogance. It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where [humanity] is at.”[14]

‘The transcendent and the earthly intermingling was Cohen’s oldest trick;’[15] in ‘Story of Isaac,’ the Genesis narrative is transformed into a protest against politics and war, and in ‘Suzanne’ the poem’s eponymous hero and her habits are juxtaposed with Christ and his passion. Cohen balances a nihilistic view of the world with a lens of redemption and hope, inspired by the Judaeo-Christian traditions, stating,

in my own work, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that the world isn’t good, that a Messianic age should be brought about, or that we should all live in peace and harmony. What I’m trying to stress is the inner strength that will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you.[16]

Perhaps the zenith of Cohen’s philosophical outlook can be seen in his poem ‘The Anthem’ where he writes, ‘Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.’[17] His perspective is simultaneously nihilistic – everything is broken, and hopeful – but light can still get in. This sense of engaging with or rather confronting the existential is arguably what has made Cohen as successful as he is; his fearlessness in addressing the big questions, laying his soul bare to life’s most painful traumas and anguishes, is something which resonates with people. When these ideas which speak to people are conveyed through popular music, an accessible medium, the impact has the potential to be far-reaching, and of all of Cohen’s pieces of work, there is one song in particular which has achieved this far-reaching impact: ‘Hallelujah.’

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

I know that there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgment that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect. And it is to this great judgment that I dedicate this next song.[18]

So began Cohen at a concert in Warsaw in 1985 before introducing ‘Hallelujah.’ Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ the version from his studio album and performed at his shows, is an authentic articulation of his personal hallelujahs. His ‘Hallelujah’ articulates his tumultuous love life, his struggles with depression, the grief and trauma from his childhood, and his interesting and at times tempestuous relationships with religion and with God. The result is a modern-day psalm which would not feel out of place in a synagogue or a church and feels intimately Cohen’s yet can also be for the tongues and hearts of other people.

‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ that David played to please the Lord,/ but you don’t really care for music, do you?’[19] The speaker of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is initially ambiguous in the first stanza; the rhetorical and informal question of ‘do you’ suggests the speaker is reflecting on themselves, perhaps looking back over their past or maybe examining themselves as they are right now. The David of the song is King David, the every-Jew, the Hebrew Bible character who was both blessed by the Lord and triumphed, while also compulsively sinning, including adultery and murder. Using David as a muse is significant because of the importance of David in both Jewish and Christian tradition. David is a character who believers can readily identify with, in both his sinning and in his being blessed and then triumphing, and he is not bound to one tradition, but is a central figure in both Judaism and Christianity, especially in the latter where his lineage leads to Jesus.

The verse continues, ‘It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth/ the minor fall,/ the major lift;/ the baffled king composing Hallelujah!’ The reference to David as musician is an intriguing one as it ‘was his musicianship that first earned David a spot in the royal court, the first step toward his rise to power and uniting the Jewish people.’[20] This honing in on David the musician sets up ‘Hallelujah’ in the Psalmist tradition and, as a musician himself, suggests that Cohen strongly identifies with David not just because of the Jewish tradition he is embedded in, but because of the uniting force of music. In dissecting the structure of the song, ‘the minor fall’ and ‘the major lift,’ Cohen lets the listener into the secrets of song creation and an insight into the relationship between Cohen and David. What is especially striking is that Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ has its melody, unlike David’s Psalms where the musical scores have been lost and forgotten over time. Thus, ‘Hallelujah’ is in many ways a complete Psalm, unlike the ones in the Jewish and Christian canons, as sung today it can be brought to life for people in a way that just reading David’s and others Psalms in the scriptures cannot. The image of David is also important in his function as the every-Jew, the man who oscillated constantly between righteousness and sin, but who always maintained God’s favour and who, of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible, holds arguably the biggest influence for Jews. The first verse ends with Cohen describing David as the ‘baffled’ king, the thoroughly human David venerated for his power and royalty, while struggling with sin. ‘Baffled’ is an apt way to describe Cohen’s approach and life over the years, an amalgamation of experiences both sacred and profane, the musician celebrated for his compositions and yet falling into the traps of hedonism.

In the second verse, King David reappears when ‘[he] saw her bathing on the roof;/ her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you,’ referencing ‘the moral low point in David’s life when he steps onto the roof of his palace and spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing across the way.’[21] This mention of David is then juxtaposed in the latter part of the verse where Cohen alludes to the Hebrew Bible story of Samson and Delilah: ‘She tied you to a kitchen chair/ she broke your throne, she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!’ In many ways this juxtaposition of two icons of the Jewish and Christian tradition is jarring and clumsy and it has the effect of making the meaning of the song somewhat incoherent or perplexing to those not familiar with the details of their narratives in the Hebrew Bible. Both David and Samson experience triumphs and dramatic falls from grace, both experience struggles with their sexuality which leads to David committing murder out of jealousy and Samson losing his strength and then his life. But the enduring legacy of both David and Samson, their reception in popular culture and history, is of figures who stumbled, fell, but ultimately triumphed. In the context of the ‘Hallelujah’ contemporary psalm, the use of David and Samson as lyrical muses contributes to the song’s popularity because David and Samson are figures people readily identify with, but are also characters who inspire hope, hope that redemption or a return of what has been lost is possible. Even in the case of Samson who ultimately lost his life, ‘he kills more people in his death than he did during his lifetime,’[22] so his final ‘hallelujah’ is ultimately one of triumph.

The third verse is where Cohen’s successors divert from his original. It begins, ‘You say I took the Name in vain;/ I don’t even know the name./ But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?’ In Judaism, the name of God is sacred, to the extent that it is never written down in case someone unaware of its importance should inadvertently say it, because ‘the name has an inherent power, a holiness that comes from the very presence of God as creator and judge.’[23] There is something intrinsically Jewish in Cohen’s lyrics here, the name of God and its significance is something of peculiar importance to the Jewish tradition and experience, and has been a source of tension between Christians who use the name of God quite readily, as opposed to Jews who revere it. Cohen’s ‘what’s it to you’ here is somewhat defensive; the name of God is a hallmark of the Jewish tradition, and the reception of Judaism and Jewish people throughout world history has generally been one of unwarranted antagonism. Thus, Cohen is defending the Jewish tradition and even more than that, defending his own tradition which matters deeply to him. The verse continues ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word;/ it doesn’t matter which you heard,/ the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!’ The ‘blaze of light in every word’ is ‘the fulcrum of the song as Cohen first wrote it.’[24] The blaze of light is God’s communicating with his people on earth, be it to prophets like Moses dramatically through a burning bush, through the Hebrew Bible for meditation on in both Jewish and Christian tradition, or through the intimacy of God and man in relationship. This relationality between God and believer is what allows for there to be a holy or a broken hallelujah. Cohen’s understanding of hallelujah is that it diverts the person away from nihilism because the hallelujah is for people in whatever their circumstances or experiences at that time. The juxtaposition of holy and broken shows Cohen directly inspired by the scriptures; he states

from what I gather in reading ancient texts, right up to the present, human beings have always been confronted by the same kinds of problems. I think that this world is not a realm that admits to a solution… We have to deal with good and evil continually. With joy and despair, with all the antinomies, all the opposites and contraries. That’s what our life is about.[25]

In ‘Hallelujah,’ Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph, taking the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrating how the stories in the scriptures are not unique experiences for human beings. As Cohen says,

now that is the biblical landscape? It is the victory of experience. That’s what the Bible celebrates. The victory of experience. So the experience of these things is absolutely necessary, as well as a teaching that enables the student to manifest, to experience these episodes that are burning through the Bible, that are now relegated to the realm of miracles or superstition, or something that can’t happen to you.[26]

Cohen’s final stanza is the most powerful and poignant. In rawness he writes, ‘I did my best; it wasn’t much.’ At first glance, it seems Cohen has gone back on his previous idea about the holy and the broken hallelujah, and is instead honing in on his brokenness, a current of despair emerging. Then the lyrics are ‘And even though it all went wrong,/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!’ As the climax of the song, its power is in its honesty and vulnerability, the authenticity of Cohen’s response to the experiences of his life and the power of God in relation to it all. Cohen embraces brokenness, but because of hallelujah, he does not wallow in it;

finally, there’s no conflict between things, finally, everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system 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 you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.[27]

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting, the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting. But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing despite pain which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.

‘Hallelujah’ is not just powerful because of the way it interweaves contemporary experiences with biblical narratives and theological concepts. Its inherent power and therefore popularity comes from the word which appears a minimum of twenty times in Cohen’s song: hallelujah. ‘’Hallelujah’ is the kind of song that seems as if it has always been written, of course, that is partly because its main theme, the chorus ‘hallelujah’ has indeed always been written.’[28] An ancient Hebrew word meaning praise the LORD, (YHWH), its strength is in its familiarity. It has connotations of the sacred but has been absorbed into general vernacular so that it does not sound out of place in the context of the more profane. The hallelujahs of Cohen’s songs have a fluidity of meaning, they embody nuance and connotation and allow people to express through the word ‘hallelujah’ whatever emotion they need to at that particular point; ‘its unknowable essence leaves [it] wide open for interpretation, but crucially… the core of the song, its tense conviction, remains intact.’[29] Although the biblical significance is perhaps distorted in the song’s subsequent reception, it attests to the power of the Bible, and therefore of God as inspiration, as the base for human responses to the world. Quite simply, ‘there is no getting around the power of that chorus: one word, charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both. It serves as a prayer, perhaps the great prayer of the modern age, regardless of one’s relationship to God.’[30] But it is still a prayer, it is still biblical language, it is still the stem of God’s name which people are calling out when they sing ‘Hallelujah.’ Cohen reflects on the power of the name, and the name appears in the word that people have latched on to and respond to overwhelmingly.

The Impact of ‘Hallelujah’

‘Hallelujah’ nearly never became a global phenomenon; Cohen’s American record label did not want to include the song on his 1984 album Various Positions, it is one song from ‘one of his least successful albums, recorded during what was probably the lowest point in his career, [which has] wriggled out from obscurity and transcended the rest of his work.’[31] There have been a multitude of covers of ‘Hallelujah,’ the most famous versions including those by Jeff Buckley in 1994, k d lang in 2004, and Rufus Wainright in 2001; several television networks in the United States used the song as a background to coverage following the September 11 attacks and, more recently, it was performed in the Hope for Haiti television appeal and played during a tribute honouring the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings at Fenway Park before the Red Sox played their first home game following the tragedy.  It has appeared on the soundtracks for films and television shows including The West Wing, House, and Shrek, prompting Cohen to ask for a moratorium on using the song.[32] There is something peculiar to ‘Hallelujah’ which suggests why it has been received the way it has.

First, ‘Hallelujah’ is, in a sense, everyone’s song. Depending upon the interview, Cohen has admitted to writing in the region of eighty verses for ‘Hallelujah,’ and the version that appears on his album and which he performs live, differs from the versions popularised by Buckley, lang, Wainright, and others who cover the song. The song

contains a multiplicity of positions. It is a song about the reasons for song writing, (to attract women; to please God) and about the mechanics of song writing, (‘it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…’), about the power of the word and of the Word, about wanting sex, about having sex and about the war of the sexes. It is also a song about total surrender and total affirmation.[33]

Furthermore, ‘because Cohen’s original version remained obscure, there was no fixed idea of how it should sound. When you come to record ‘Hallelujah’ you do not have the spectre of a definitive take.’[34] Because there is freedom to have a favourite version, this allows ‘Hallelujah’ to be a song for different contexts; if you are feeling morose you can turn to Wainright, if you need the uplifting injection of a gospel take, there is X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s version. Second, part of the reason why the song is free to be interpreted and covered so readily is because of the subject matter. The traditional cover version of ‘Hallelujah’ combines biblical imagery, generally familiar in a Western context, with universal questions about love and life. Jeff Buckley, whose version of ‘Hallelujah’ is arguably more famous than Cohen’s, said of the song, ‘whoever listens closely to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth. The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It is an ode to life and love.’[35] The “layman’s” ‘Hallelujah’ begins the same as Cohen’s: the secret chord, the bathing on the roof, and the cut hair. Then it turns decidedly more classic love song with erotic undertones. There is the despair that can only be articulated out of desire, such as ‘I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,/ but love is not a victory march,/ it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!’ The next verse features an even more explicit sexual allusion, ‘There was a time when you let me know/ what’s really going on below/ but now you never show it to me, do you?/ I remember when I moved in you,/ and the holy dove was moving too,/ and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!’ There is something jarring about using the image of the holy dove, which is so embedded in ideas of the Holy Spirit and transcendental power, with the acts of intercourse and orgasm; but it also works. It combines the base human quest for intimacy and ecstasy with the existential. The power of the language comes from the vaguely theological imagery while the subject matter is knowable and liveable; yes it is a manipulation of biblical concepts, but it has been used in a context of relevance, biblical reception history for those seeking their sexual desire to be quenched; familiar language for familiar feelings.

The cover version of the song climaxes the lines of the final verse: ‘Now maybe there’s a God above/ but all I ever learned from love/ is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you./ And it’s no complaint you hear tonight,/  and it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light – / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!’ The familiar-sounding biblical language is still there and, coupled with the non-committal ‘maybe’ in relation to God’s existence, it articulates a common emotion, a common thought. But as well as being non-committal, the ‘maybe’ can also mean ‘so what?’ Does it matter if there is a God above when in the present there is human love, sex, and emotion? There is a sense that the biblical imagery and language should jar with the sexually-charged subject matter but, once again, the religious language lends itself to communicating the raw emotion associated with lust and love. As a love and lust song, ‘Hallelujah’s’ biblical and religious undertones serve to elevate the subject matter and put a unique spin on the classic love song. The use of religious imagery gives a sense of communicating with something ‘other,’ which makes the song stand out in a quagmire of clichés that popular music charts often can be.

‘Religious ambiguous songs have an added advantage – belief in belief…and so if you can write good religious lyrics – lyrics that are both well-written and yet sufficiently ambiguous – those lyrics will benefit from this belief in belief.’[36] In many ways, ‘Hallelujah’ resonates so strongly with people because of its title and its anthemic, prayer-like refrain: Hallelujah. It is explicitly religious, biblical, theological language; even if you cannot explain what it means in Hebrew or how it is used in scriptures and liturgy, you can at least give a rough sense of its meaning. Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan of Jerusalem’s Nava Tehilia Synagogue, who used the song for her daughter’s bat mitzvah as well as when conducting other religious services, states that ‘Hallelujah…is not a hymn of the believer – it’s a hymn of the one who is full of doubt, a hymn of the heretic.’[37] When ‘Hallelujah’ is juxtaposed with ‘maybe there’s a God above’ it enables the song to have fluidity in religious leanings; it can be a song for the doubter and the believer. The Jewish-Christian language, in a Western context, is compatible with an infinite number of interpretations and can appeal to a broad spectrum of religious and non-religious beliefs. When Alexandra Burke released the song as her X Factor winner’s single in competition for the sought-after Christmas Number One, its familiarity of religiosity made it a triumphant single for the winner of the most-watched television reality show and a fitting song for the charts during a festive period when Christian religiosity peaks in its exposure and in people’s religious practices; in many ways, ‘Hallelujah’ was guilt-free consumerism in the Christmas period because it could be received as being a religious song.

The cover version of ‘Hallelujah,’ the love song that works as a gospel song, is biblical reception history for the age of fading religious literacy. It combines religious language, which sounds right, with scenarios and emotions which are common to human experience. The sense of doubt about God’s existence with the biblical references which feel familiar are what have enabled the song to transcend artists and genres and to feel acceptable against numerous backdrops. ‘Hallelujah’ works against images of terrorism and a global outpouring of grief such as 9/11, just as it works as the climax of reality television shows, secondary plots in animated children’s films like Shrek, and as erotically-charged songs on the albums of alternative artists like Buckley and lang. The word ‘hallelujah’ is accessible in its familiarity, its religious connotations make it feel like you are singing something profound, it allows you to be formally religious without the commitment of being an actual believer, you can be a doubter and a lover, a believer and a fighter. Religious language should, theoretically, alienate people for whom the religious language is not theirs, but the opposite has happened with ‘Hallelujah’ which suggests there is something peculiar to Cohen’s song that has subverted expectations. ‘Hallelujah’ has become ‘the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text,’[38] but more than that, it has become the popular music version of sacred music, of liturgical chant. ‘Hallelujah’ is a prime example of biblical reception history for the modern age because, at face value, it communicates something more than it lyrically means when you dissect the popularised version. The song as a whole, the tune and the biblical references combined, are what make the song powerful and enduring and applicable for a multitude of contexts and people. The power of the popularised ‘Hallelujah’ lies in its approachability and adaptability. The repeated ‘hallelujah’ is not alienating but embracing and because the song as a whole feels like communicating something ‘other,’ every breath you draw really is hallelujah – whatever it may mean for you.

Conclusion(s)

‘I don’t go looking for joy. I don’t go around looking for melancholy either.’[39] ‘Hallelujah’ has connected the sacred with the profane, drawing on how this intersects in biblical narratives, how this translates theologically, and how this can be expressed in contemporary situations and experiences. The song is an interweaving of hope and despair, triumph and failure, joy and melancholy, with a constant repetition of the word ‘hallelujah.’ The song is popular because the refrain resonates with people from all backgrounds, in its reception from Cohen through to Simon Cowell and The X Factor, it is the name of God which holds the song together and which has ensured its legacy as a go-to song for all sort of occasions for the entire spectrum of human emotions. That there is something in the word ‘hallelujah’ which appeals to people, which lends itself to expressions of gospel-style triumph through to the very depths of despair as articulated in some of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible is important, but so is that even in the secular it still articulates something deeper, something profound, some sense of expressing something other or beyond, or deeper, beyond oneself. In its later incarnations, ‘Hallelujah’ is biblical reception history tweaked, while in Cohen’s original version it feels like it has a more authentic reception of Jewish narratives and theology. But the use or misuse of the Bible somehow feels irrelevant when the song’s entire reception success is on the word which incorporates the name of God. Something of the tradition remains and resonates with people, however they choose to respond to the question of faith. This is ‘Hallelujah’s’ power: it calls upon the name of God. In Cohen recognising that it can all go wrong and that there is still the chance to get up again and stand, he has written a song which defers the strength needed to get through the worst of circumstances through calling on the name of God. Today, this may translate as calling on something greater than oneself, but it is still calling on something or one greater, and when they choose ‘Hallelujah’ to articulate that call, it is God they call on.

[1] Cohen quoted in Walker, B., ‘Complexities and Mr Cohen,’ Sounds, March 4 1972, http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/sounds2.html accessed 07/04/15. [2] Simmons, S., I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.8. [3] Cohen quoted in Footman, T., Leonard Cohen Hallelujah: A New Biography, (Surrey: Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.43. [4] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.25. [5] Simmons, (2012), p.13. [6] Ibid., p.8. [7] Footman, (2009), p.17 [8] Ibid., p.22. [9] Rasky, H., The Song of Leonard Cohen: A Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship and a Film, (London: Souvenir Press, 2001), p.16. [10] Cohen quoted in Turner, S., ‘Leonard Cohen: The Profits of Doom,’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.207. [11] Rasky, (2001), p.74. [12] Ibid., p.74. [13] Cohen, L., Let Us Compare Mythologies, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1956), p.15. [14] Cohen quoted in Scharen, C., Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to those Seeking God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.44. [15] Leibovitz, L., A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, (Dingwall: Sandstone Press Ltd, 2014), p.150. [16] Cohen quoted in O’Brian, R., ‘Songs and Thoughts of Leonard Cohen,’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.184. [17] Cohen, L., Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), p.373. [18] Cohen quoted in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.171. [19] See Appendix 1. All further quotations from this song are from this version. [20] Light, (2012), p.19. [21] Telushkin, J., Jewish Literacy, (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 2001), p.67. [22] Ibid., p.60. [23] Scharen, C., Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.40. [24] Light, (2012), p.24. [25] Cohen quoted in O’Brian, (2014), p.184. [26] Cohen quoted in Kurzweil, A., ‘I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.387. [27] Cohen quoted in Footman, (2009), p.209. [28] Scharen, (2011), p.45. [29] Light, (2012), p.222. [30] Ibid., p.228. [31] Footman, (2009), p.198. [32] Kreps, D., ‘Leonard Cohen Asks for Brief Halt to New Covers of “Hallelujah,”’ Rolling Stone, 2009. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/leonard-cohen-asks-for-brief-halt-to-new-covers-of-hallelujah-20090710 accessed 07/03/15[33] Simmons, (2012), p.338. [34] Footman, (2009), p.200. [35] Buckley quoted in Light, A., The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” (New York: Atria Books, 2012), p.1. [36] Stone, P., ‘The Happy Memes of “Hallelujah”’ in Holt, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, (New York: Open Court Publishing, 2014), p.250. [37] Ibid., p.250. [38] Simmons, (2012), p.347. [39] Cohen quoted in Turner, S., ‘Depressing? Who? Me?’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p56.

Wax Strips And Wittenberg Nails

Office food

The office snack bowl: bringing together health-conscious head of fundraising and the rest of us who just want chocolate.

A friend of mine (and I genuinely do mean a friend, this isn’t a story about me that I’m embarrassed to admit is about me) was waxing her moustache. She applied the wax strip, smoothed it down, and prepared to pull. She began to pull it, decided it was too painful, so left it and went to bed. The next morning she woke up, had wax which had hunkered down and brought in several strands of hair from her head for good measure but had decided to divorce the strip of paper. That her face is now wax free (also hair free) is the result of perseverance and repeated exclamations of pain.

What is my point? Other than wanting to stress that this is not a personal anecdote because I am a boss at willingly ripping hair out of my body in acquiescence to patriarchal aesthetic standards. My point is this: unity hurts, but not as much disunity does. 

It’s Reformation Day (if you’re a church history nerd). It’s also Hallowe’en (if you’re into chocolate and exceptional grammar). This year Reformation Day is a bit of a big deal because it’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There was a time when I could tell you a lot about the 95 theses, but that time was a first year undergraduate module on medieval and reformation theology and over time, the nuances of reformation history have been replaced by other, more exciting (and useful) theological facts. Anyway, long story rendered exceedingly short and majorly simplified: there was a colossal church schism in the West and, much like the schism with the East, our ecclesiology since then has been an almighty spit in the face of the call to be the Body of Christ. (I told you this was over-simplified, please don’t shout at me, I’m a theological ethicist, not a church history expert).

As it’s the 500th anniversary, there’s been much more of a buzz around Reformation Day than perhaps there usually is. Across my networks, opinion is slightly divided. My broadly Protestant Facebook friends are very happy about the Reformation and my more Catholic-leaning Twitter world is slightly less enthusiastic.

Say a miracle was to happen and Rome and everyone else reunited, and then West reunited with East, it would be amazing! Wouldn’t it? The church coming together as one body… although, if you’re an ordained woman or an ordained man who would want to say “ordained woman,” how idyllic will unity be in that instance? Can you even get unity through that chasm?

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. In genuine unity, you see that every human being is in the image of Christ, you capture just a glimpse of God’s love for them, and your care and compassion for them becomes consuming and forever unfulfilled to completion due to the postlapsarian condition. I’ve only been in the Community of St Anselm for a few weeks, but that vow I made ‘I choose you’ to my fellow community members has unequivocally become ‘I love you.’

On my lunch break, I think about the resident members sharing the peace with one another before they celebrate the Eucharist. As the majority of my colleagues come into the office around 9am, my mind is drawn to my fellow non-resident members going into their various places of work. Through Twitter, I see where in the world my Abbot is and I pray for him. My Sharing Group WhatsApp buzzes and I am reminded of these people who opened their lives to me and I to them and the humbling yet empowering privilege that is. I scroll through the notes on my phone and come across the words written down after time with my spiritual companion, words straight from God that sear through my inner being, the fire of divine love. And then I remember that even though our ultimate authority is on the throne, in this temporal realm she belongs to Rome while I belong to Canterbury, that whenever someone says ‘we all share in one bread,’ I can no longer say that without feeling crippling pain because she and I cannot share in one bread. 

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. Ask the God who hung on a cross until he died.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

I liked the Eucharist a heck of a lot more than I did before I donned an alb, took a cross, and said ‘I choose you.’

Disunity destroys your ability to see the image of Christ in another. Disunity distorts what truly matters, it values things over people. Disunity revels in jealousy and greed and anger. Disunity treats the cross like a game of capture the flag. Disunity says ‘this is my body, broken for some of you.’ Disunity would have been a full stop after the gates of Eden closed. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happens. God makes us garments and clothes us. He covers our shame but we still feel acutely that shame. But I’d rather feel that than death. Disunity brings death.

Unity hurts; to turn to the person who has wounded you and say ‘peace be with you’ can be utter agony. But disunity, it might feel gratifying now, it might shirk the responsibility of reconciliation in the present, it might seem like all you are missing is a toe here and a finger there, but the end result is a pain unendurable.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.