I’m a fan of the Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, and in the past week since Easter Day one of his songs came to mind. I reached into my collection of CDs and found it.
In the song he is heard in a conversation with someone with whom he’d been in love, and it becomes clear that things have gone south in the relationship. Yet the song is ultimately about a trust that things are alright; deeply alright.
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Hallelujah. God be praised.
Despite the brokenness around him, Cohen finds a prayer of trust to be the final word.
The second Sunday of Easter always brings us Thomas, for whom things seem to have fallen apart. Jesus, for whom Thomas set aside a whole life, met a brutal end at the hands of the Romans, and everything I know about Thomas from the scriptures makes me very sympathetic to what we’ve come to call his doubt.
I’m one of those people for whom faith that God is alive and at work to help us hasn’t always come easily. Sometimes I think I feel too much.
The world is still a place where the soul feels danger. Hatred and violence are still rampant in the world. Our political climate is poisonous, our institutions of finance riddled with greed and corruption. The wealth of the world more and more lies in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Can we trust that they have our best interests in mind? Ordinary working people seem to be getting the raw end of the deal, not to mention those who are in danger of falling off the edge of society.
It seems very reasonable to me for even people of Christian faith to lament, and that puts me at times in awkward places, because I perceive that I live in a culture – even in the church - that doesn’t value lamentation as a faithful act. It seems to me at times that the culture around me encourages me to avoid that, to go quickly to some kind of sunny optimism.
So I relate well to Thomas. I can relate to his disappointment and deep sense of loss that prevents him from immediately trusting that the risen Jesus was with the other disciples, and now stands before him in the flesh.
Thomas suffered a deep loss. One of the lines of Cohen’s song seems to apply as well to Thomas. “I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.” Thomas is afraid to feel hope again, lest he be disappointed. So he won’t believe until he can touch Jesus.
Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a human being. I can handle that. It’s why I like Leonard Cohen’s song. There’s some lament in the song, but there is also that deep affirmation: “Hallelujah”. God be praised.
I may struggle with doubt, and you may too, but in the end I believe.
I’m helped in my faith by an ancient image, and you’ll see it before you as you come up toward the altar for Holy Communion.
What you see before you is an icon of the Lord’s resurrection. While in Israel a decade ago I had this icon written for me, and I lugged it home on the plane to Oregon.
What you see in the icon is Jesus standing on the brink of the blackness that is hell, and from it he draws Adam and Eve up into the light of day. The chains and locks of their captivity there are now shattered, and you can see the broken pieces falling away back into the blackness.
The most important thing to notice is the grip Jesus has on Eve and Adam. To look at that detail in the icon is to see that all the power to save lies with God. He holds them by the wrist. Their ascent from the power of death to the light of day is due solely to the power of Christ, and not in any way to their own effort.
Psalm 16, appointed for today, begins with a simple prayer; the prayer available to all human beings when we realize we’ve run out of resources to save the world ourselves, let alone to save ourselves. “Protect me, O God.”
If we are to live in the heaven promised us in this world and the next, it will be because we trust with the Psalmist in the Lord of life, who does not give us or the world up to Sheol, to the pit of death. It will be because we find, with Thomas, in the wounded one our Lord and our God! When he touched the wounds he knew that Jesus knew all about suffering, and that God knew all about suffering.
If we are to live in the heaven promised us right now and forever, it will be because we trust the deep truth the ancient icon teaches. God in Christ has us firmly in a saving grip, and we are right now raised with him. The icon teaches us what our baptism signifies. We are raised with Christ; the world is redeemed and in the hands of God. It is not for us to grasp this intellectually. It is for us to know it and trust it. Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Because of this, we stand before the Lord of song with nothing on our tongue but “Hallelujah”.
Image: Icon written in May 2000 in Jerusalem. Photo by Charles Pearson of St. Paul's, Bellingham.