This post comes to us from Matthew Wilkins.
Wednesday, musician/poet Leonard Cohen celebrated his 82nd birthday, and gave us a gift in the midst of this particularly saddening week by releasing the title track from his upcoming album “You Want it Darker.”
Cohen has never been one to shy away from religious themes in his music, even deeply Christian themes though he considers himself both Jewish and a Buddhist, and “You Want it Darker” is no exception.
Over a somewhat brooding backing track with well timed choral support, Cohen delves into questions of God, evil, and human suffering in a way that not only resonates with what we see in the Psalms (why, O Lord, do you stand far away, why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? Ps. 10) and Lamentations (my eyes are spent with weeping, Lam. 2), but also in a way that is deeply Christo-centric.
The verses speak of everything from the gulf between humanity and God (If Thine is the glory, mine must be the shame), to the paradox of God Almighty suffering and dying on a cross (magnified sanctified be Thy Holy Name, vilified, crucified in the human frame), to the awful things we humans do to one another (didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim). But, the most haunting part of the song comes in its chorus and in Cohen’s repeating of the line “You want it darker, we kill the flame.”
My Christianized ears can’t hear this line without thinking of it as a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate proof that we humans are utterly fallen creatures. That in the litany of awful things we have done to one another throughout history, the climax of our sinfulness consists in the fact that we did indeed kill the flame. The light of the world, full of grace and truth was among us, but we decided the best place for Him was a cross, a place where, to paraphrase Cohen, the help never did come (my God, my God, why have you forsaken me).
Yet, “You Want it Darker” is not bereft of hope. Cohen returns again and again to the refrain “Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” Hineni is Hebrew for “Here am I,” the response Moses, Abraham, and Isaiah all give when God speaks to them, and I cannot help but hear it as a sort of hopeful longing that God is somehow present even in the face of the worst things we humans can produce, even our murder of God’s son. That even in the horror of the cross, God is present and meets us, not in glory or triumph, but in His suffering and dying.
This is the heart of the Gospel, that though the darkness of this world and our own hearts seems to be never-ending and all encompassing, the light has shown in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The flame that we once killed rose from the grave, has defeated death, and will one day return to put all darkness to flight. In the meantime we wait, hope, and sing along with our friend Leonard, “I’m ready, my Lord.”