In 2001 the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” made an unexpected turn from unknown indie song to mainstream favorite. And it happened for two random and utterly different reasons. One underscores the improbable nature of this song becoming the most covered song in music history. The other one is in keeping with the strange journey this song took from idea to phenomenon.
The first reason that we won’t spend much time on was its placement in the movie Shrek. At a key scene in the movie, John Cale’s version is played over a montage of action from different characters as they return to their lives apart from one another.
Shrek was a phenomenon that almost never was–just like “Hallelujah.” As they made the movie no one thought it would be good. It had to be recast during shooting. No one knew what this “thing” was so they added in jokes for adults and music adults would like. That it wasn’t going to be a hit allowed them to experiment. And their experiments made it a hit. Suddenly everyone wanted the song from that climactic montage.
But if that was the only thing that happened that year, “Hallelujah” is probably a song that has a three month shelf life.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, news producers from every network were scrambling to figure out how to cover what was the only story. This wasn’t just news networks, this was every network. The world had changed and to not acknowledge it, to just run normal programming, would be callous. And so it was that executives at VH1, a music channel, were trying to figure out what to put on their air on 9/11 and the following days. They had a montage of video clips of the destruction, of first responders coming to aid the victims, of people reacting and responding to the terrible attack. But they didn’t know what music to put with it. They went through a number of songs but had to vet all of the lyrics to make sure nothing was inappropriate. And they were at a loss. You’re VH1, you’re a music channel, and you can’t find the song to capture the most pivotal moment in recent American history.
Then a young assistant suggests a little known song by a little known musician. And the words, the mood, the affect are perfect. VH1 puts that song with the images of 9/11 and suddenly that song sung by that musician becomes the song that resonates with the moment.
It just so happens that the version of this song–about clinging to hope in the midst of brokenness—which became the anthem for the moment was sung by someone whose life ended in brokenness and tragedy.
The song chosen was Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Jeff Buckley was the son of singer Tim Buckley although he grew up not knowing his father. He met him once, when Jeff was 8, but there was no relationship. Tim Buckley died very young of a drug overdose, ending any chance of resurrecting their relationship.
Jeff Buckley got his start playing clubs in New York City but his big break came when playing at a tribute show for his father. He sang a song of his father’s called “I Didn’t Mean to be Your Mountain” that was written by his father about an infant Jeff Buckley.
From that very show Buckley struck up a friendship with the program director. When the program director went out of town, Buckley housesat for her and found a CD entitled “I’m Your Fan,” a tribute album to Leonard Cohen. On that CD Buckley heard John Cale sing a song called “Hallelujah.” Buckley added it to his weekly club sets. Buckley puts it on a released record but he’s still this small talent playing in New York City. His record Grace was widely considered a massive flop.
Buckley and his song don’t get a wider hearing until a personal tragedy strikes. Three years after Grace came out, a disappointed Buckley moved to Memphis to try to find a new start and a new sound. He began writing and recording songs and sending them to his band who was still in New York.
On the day the band arrived in Memphis to record the new album, Buckley and a friend spent the afternoon by Wolf River. Buckley waded out into the water, his friend turned his back, and Buckley disappeared. Fire and rescue, paramedics, and helicopters were called in to search for this beautiful young singer just entering the prime of his life. They searched and searched and searched. And found nothing. Six days later a boat traveling along the river saw something in the water and pulled out the drowned body of Jeff Buckley.
Following his death Jeff Buckley’s art got a wider hearing than it ever did during his life. It was his personal tragedy that allowed his rendition of “Hallelujah” to become the song that defined a national tragedy.
A broken man bearing witness to his pain yet still having the courage to sing hallelujah became the words for a nation shocked by horror who clung to the hope that we might one day risk singing hallelujah once more.
He sang the words for us that we weren’t ready to sing for ourselves but his singing made us hope.
Advent isn’t a time when we hope naively.
Advent isn’t a time when the Church witnesses to a quick and magic fix that is coming into the world.
Advent is a time when we sing of brokenness and hope. When we acknowledge the darkness while still pointing to the coming light.
The magic of Christmas, the magic of God’s Kingdom, is coming into our lives and into our world. We know it’s coming. God has promised that it’s coming and God makes good on his promises. God is coming into the world and God’s presence will heal us and restore us and fix us and change us.
God doesn’t promise to come to a perfect community, a perfect people, a people already redeemed. God promises to come to a people who need redemption. That means God promises to come to a community that experiences brokenness.
“Hallelujah” came to a community experiencing tragedy from the lips of a musician whose life knew tragedy and ended in tragedy. And that resonance created magic.
That resonance created beauty.
That resonance created healing.
This year, rather than Christmas coming to your perfect home and your perfect life, perhaps Christmas needs to come to people who need saving. To broken people who live in broken communities who need their lives redeemed and restored.
This year, this Christmas, perhaps we can view the imperfections in our lives as signs of God’s future coming.
For our God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness in order to create wholeness and peace.
It isn’t the perfect moments that reveal the coming savior, but the hurt and the pain. That’s what signals to us that our God is on the move.
Suggested Bible reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Note about Zephaniah: Zephaniah is a short book, only three chapters long. Zephaniah has nine sermons, or oracles as they’re called in biblical interpretation. This Bible reading is the ninth and final oracle. The other eight oracles are completely different in nature. They are about God’s impending judgment on Israel. He proclaims the coming day of the Lord when all will be judged for breaching and breaking the covenant. Zephaniah announces cosmic destruction upon the world, especially upon the people of Judah, Jerusalem, and Israel for breaking the covenant. Priests do not fare too kindly in Zephaniah. Eight sermons, one after the other, proclaiming God’s judgment on the people, saying the end is coming because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, saying God should be done with the lot of us. And then, after all that, we get this passage. For the vast majority of this book Zephaniah has been telling them all the things they ought to fear. And now he says they should fear no more.
Rev. Matt Benton is a husband, father, and pastor.