Sunday, 28 September 2014

Born In Chains: Leonard Cohen and Jesus

I have been a big fan of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer/songwriter and poet, since my early teen years, and still am. I love the man. Since coming to faith in Jesus, it has occurred to me that there are many references to Christ in Cohen's music, some explicit and some subtle. I get the feeling that to Cohen Jesus is a part of his Jewish heritage and spiritual world and a presence in his thoughts as opposed to someone alien or threatening. Perhaps this is related also to his French Canadian influences growing up. On Cohen's new album there is a stunningly beautiful song of praise and contemplation with unmistakeable Christian resonances as well as the obvious Jewish ones. Before I share a direct quote from Cohen on Yeshua, here is the song:

Born In Chains

1. I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden but the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer keep this secret
Blessed is the Name, the Name be praised

2. I fled to the edge of the mighty sea of sorrow
pursued by the riders of a cruel and dark regime
but the waters parted and my soul crossed over
out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh's dream

3. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
That's all I know, I cannot read the rest

4. I was idle with my soul when I heard you could use me
I followed very closely but my life remained the same
But then you showed me where you had been wounded
in every atom, broken is the Name

5. I was alone on the road then your love was so confusing
All my teachers told me I had myself to blame
but in the grip of sensual illusion
this sweet unknowing unified the Name

6. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
Thats all I know, I cannot read the rest

7. I've heard the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing
and the bitter liquor sweetens in the hammered cup
All the ladders of the night are fallen
Only darkness now to lift the longing up

8. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
Thats all I know I cannot read the rest

There you have it. Stunningly beautiful. Hamaveen yaveen (let the wise understand).

A few thoughts on the images in the song: In both Jewish and Christian mysticism the Exodus symbolizes the salvation of the individual soul (verses 1 and 2). This is a more central metaphor for Christians since Jesus' death and resurrection is closely linked in the New Testament to the symbolism and inner meaning of Passover. "The Name" is itself a name of God and translates "Hashem", the usual way of referring to God among Jews. The Torah itself is also considered a "name" of God, sometimes said to be written in flaming letters (verse 3). In Jeremiah the promised "new covenant" will be written on the heart (verse 3). In the New Testament Jesus shows his wounds to "doubting Thomas" who then believes that Jesus has in fact come bodily back from the dead and is The Lord. This is also after Jesus' body is broken on the cross, an act Jesus foresaw and described with the word "broken" (verse 4). ""Unifying the Name" is a mystical goal of Jewish practice and refers 1) to the coming of the Messiah and the healing of the world; 2; to there being only one name under which God is known and 3) the unification of the shekhinah and God, or the unification of the soul of Israel/soul of creation with its Creator (verse 5).

I would not want to pin this song down to one clear meaning. I do get the sense that it is about coming to a relationship with God and finding his name written on his heart, even if in many ways he lives in a "sweet unknowing" which leaves many things not understood. It does seem like this has been a liberating passage for Cohen (out of Egypt) and that all of this may in some way be connected to contemplating Jesus' life and teachings as expressions of God as well. It is tempting to read more into the poem but out of respect for Cohen and the mystery and beauty of the the poem-song I will stop there. My point here is not to argue that Cohen is a closet messianic Jew. I do think though that Jesus is a presence in his thoughts and this is a provocative and interesting song melding Jewish and Christian imagery into a beautiful song of praise to the Name.

Here is the lovely quote from Cohen on Jesus:

"I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek" has got to be a figure of unparallelled generosity and insight and madness…A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me."

Leonard Cohen (1988), from "Leonard Cohen in His Own Words" by Jim Devlin

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