The first time I ever heard Jeff Buckley perform Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, it became the song that runs through my head whenever I think of Good Friday. I know it’s not an intentionally Christian song, but music, like all art, is open to interpretation. And when I hear Jeff Buckley telling us so beautifully that “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” I envision the passion of Christ.
I grew up in the Catholic Church, so I have been witness to imagery of Jesus’s infamous last walk and his subsequent crucifixion from my earliest childhood. I went to a Catholic college, where I studied medieval and renaissance art as part of our core requirements. And I have traveled to many very old churches and cathedrals in places like Spain and Portugal and France. I have seen some pretty gory Jesus pictures, and when I think of the Jesus of Good Friday, it’s not Happy Anglo Jesus that I see.
It’s a beaten and broken Jesus that comes to mind, with a rope around his neck, bowed down under the weight of the cross that will torture and kill him. It’s not a pretty, or a comfortable image.
But it is an image of love. Whether you see Jesus as God, man, myth, or some combination thereof, the story of Good Friday is the same: it is the story of a good man who chooses to be vilified, shamed, beaten, tortured, and killed because he believes that in doing so, he is saving his people. That is love, and for me, Leonard Cohen describes this kind of love — what I think is real love — the best.
Because love isn’t a victory march. We like to think it is. We like to think it’s a feeling, and a triumphant and beautiful one at that. We like to see it as a power that overtakes us, and pulls us powerlessly but beatifically along its course. We like to think that love is something that exists in and of itself. It isn’t.
Love is a choice. When it is at its most powerful, love is raw and deliberate and difficult. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of his people. It can be as simple as a mother watching her child walk into kindergarten, even though her every instinct is urging her to hold that baby in her arms and never let go. It can be as mundane as a middle aged married couple mucking through the routine of their daily lives together, not because of romantic magic but because they chose one another and know that they belong together. And it can be as heartbreaking as a family holding the hands of a dying loved one, telling him that it is okay for him to let go, that they will survive without him, even though they can’t imagine how.
I’m not trying to say that there isn’t joy in love — there is. That is where the hallelujah comes in. Because when we love, when we willingly let go of part of ourselves on behalf of someone else, we are unleashing the most glorious power in the universe.
I know that sounds like hyperbole. I am prone to exaggeration. But this time, I mean it. Because really, what else has kept the human race going through all messiness we have created? We have emerged from absolute horror time and time again, because there have always been people who have chosen love, time and time again. And for me, there is no greater symbol of this than the Jesus we see on Good Friday.
Love isn’t a victory march. It is a cold and broken hallelujah. And whenever I think of what happened today in my Church’s tradition, I know why I continue to believe. Easter may be the foundation of our theology, but Good Friday is the essence of what it means to be a Christian — and a human.
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And on a side note, you have to be a pretty talented composer to create a song that can remind a person (at least this person) of both Shrek and Jesus.