What a Leonard Cohen Song Taught Me About Easter

In the small coastal Italian town of Positano, according to the Lonely Planet Guide Book, there is really only one tourist attraction. Yes, there are small galleries, or palaces converted to hotels and beaches and boats. But the only real sight to see is Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. It’s a church. And its domed roof, alongside the ascending pastel colored rectangular houses built on the sides of the cliff, are what make Positano’s coastline one of a kind.

The first night we arrived in Positano, as part of our ten-year anniversary trip, we headed straight to the beach, finding our way through the zig-zag of buildings and alleyways, stairwells and the occasional road. That’s how we arrived at Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Purely by accident. As a detour to the beach. We thought, if this was the only sight to see in Positano, we might as well see it.

But it wasn’t the sight that drew us in. It was the music coming from inside of it.

There was an organ playing, but it wasn’t playing your traditional church music. In fact, that’s probably why it took me a minute to recognize the song. It was playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in that echoing dome and with that incomprehensible view, hearing it was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.

This past Sunday, Palm Sunday, as our church wrapped up a series on David, the famous and celebrated king of Israel, the service opened with this song. The truth is, the song is haunting as much as it is beautiful—whether you hear it on the Amalfi coast, or in Atlanta, Georgia. But something about it from this past Sunday seemed different.

We listened to the Jeff Buckley version, where one of the verses says this:

…And I’ve see your flag on the marble arch

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

It seemed a fitting verse to sing on the day we celebrate Palm Sunday, a sort of victory march set in motion by a crowd ready and willing and desperate for a king who looked out for their interests.

Palm Sunday is the culmination of an ongoing clash between what Jesus knew He had come to be, and who the people wanted Him to be. After being held under the thumb of an oppressive Roman rule, they saw Jesus as a leader who could free them from tyranny and maybe give Rome a taste of their own medicine.

So they treated Jesus like a king—the king they wanted. Waving palm branches in His path. Shouting accolades as they lined the streets. “What can you do for us?” they seemed to be asking, “You can be the king, the advocate, we need. You’re just the one we’ve been waiting for to victory march our way to power.”

The thing is, as we know, Jesus didn’t do a very good job of fulfilling the expectations of an eager crowd. And when it became clear that He wouldn’t do what they wanted Him to, they turned on Him. A mere five days later, and they demanded the release of a convicted murderer, in return for the crucifixion of the one they had just days before laid palms on the ground for.

They thought love was how Jesus behaved on Palm Sunday.

So they couldn’t recognize real love when it showed up on Good Friday.

They thought love was in power, control, retribution, and justice.

They never expected it to show up in powerlessness, humility, sacrifice, and selflessness.

But love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

Palm Sunday shows us how we often expect love to show up and stick around. With fanfare. With ease. With celebration. With expectation.

Good Friday shows us that love isn’t about the palm fronds at all. It’s messy. It’s bloody. It can be humiliating. It usually requires that something die.

But the truth is redemption and resurrection can’t happen with just a Palm Sunday. A Palm Sunday love sounds nice, but it’s superficial. Good Friday love hurts, but it’s the kind of love we want. Because its experienced the worst and then stuck around long enough to see what beauty can be pulled from it in spite of it all. Thanks to Good Friday, we get Easter Sunday. And that is the hallmark of the Christian faith. Not Palm Sunday where everything felt good and seemed good and looked good. But Easter Sunday where things felt bad and seemed bad and looked bad—but weren’t.

A broken hallelujah is the kind of love we want. A victory march love doesn’t know what it can withstand, survive or be made into—because its never had to. But a broken love has been to the brink. It wasn’t sure it could withstand, survive or evolve. But it didn’t throw in the towel. And in the darkest place, it began to see glimpses of resurrection.

When I think about it, an organ playing “Hallelujah” in the only tourist sight in Positano, a domed church overlooking the turquoise water below, makes perfect sense. Because the most important story of my faith is wrapped up in its lyrics. But truthfully, the most important stories of our lives, not just our faith, are wrapped up in these lyrics—in the realization that broken isn’t bad, but a necessary step to redemption. That pain and hurt and loss are part of the experience, but not the end. That a victory march isn’t much of a goal to shoot for. But a love that has made it, despite the odds against it, is. It has a story to tell. And a resurrection story is the best kind of story.

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