Thursday, December 17 —by Bethany Kacich

“The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…..”
-Matthew 1:1-17

You won’t find Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in any hymn book, and I doubt that most people consider it a Christmas song. But the pop a capella group Pentatonix included not one but two versions on their album “A Pentatonix Christmas Deluxe,” both haunting in their beauty. I have been listening to the song in its myriad incarnations on repeat during this unusual, pandemic-inflected Advent season. This Hallelujah rather than Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” seems a fitting score to the end of a year that I will forever associate with the profound darkness that forms the womb of hope.

Cohen’s Hallelujah sings not of triumphant divine love that conquers all, but rather of the seasoned, quiet, human love that remains when all else has been vanquished.

Baby, I’ve been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hearing these lyrics juxtaposed on an album with nonsensical falalalalala’s has pushed me to consider how, exactly, Cohen’s dark and powerful lyrics relate to our Christmas festivities.

The Advent story I grew up with recounted a triumphant Mary accepting unconditionally the angel Gabriel’s news that she would bear a child who would reign over the house of Jacob forever. It emphasized her total obedience and her Magnificat—the canticle in which she glorifies God. This version of the story tended to gloss over her initial reaction: she was greatly troubled (Luke 1:29).

2020 was a year in which many of us were greatly troubled. And perhaps for this reason, it has been easy for me to imagine Mary in this light—or, more accurately, in this darkness. Persecuted, she is fleeing everything she knows, seeking safety. Being pregnant, she cannot move as quickly as she used to; her vulnerability is omnipresent. She doesn’t know if her betrothed will divorce her and what she will do if that happens. She is cold. She is scared. Still, she consents: May it be done to me according to Your will. Within this prayer, I hear Cohen’s cold and broken hallelujah.

What would Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016, make of his Hallelujah being featured on pop Christmas albums? Personally, I like to think he would have enjoyed knowing that his lyrics inspired Marian musings. About his childhood, he once commented, “It was very Messianic. I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest.”

Cohen was an artist who knew something about the importance of the stories we tell about where we come from.

As Christians, half of our holy book is the Hebrew Bible, full of such lineage stories. Yet we have generally become estranged from this aspect of our tradition. Today’s gospel reading is a complete genealogy of Jesus, tracing his lineage from Abraham to Isaac to King David, to Johosaphat, to Manassah, to Zerubbabel, down through to Joseph and Mary. What are we to do with a fourteen-generation genealogy?

These genealogies help us make sense of troubling circumstances we find ourselves in. We trace them, repeat them, hold on to them, reread them and we pass them down because we seek to understand the conditions that have shaped us. We cannot understand ourselves without understanding our genealogies, our histories.

Therapy is often caricatured as a place where we complain about our mothers. While I’ve done plenty of that variety of grousing, it’s truer to say that it’s a place where I talk about where I come from—who my ancestors are. How the heck I got here.

As a Master of Social Work student, I speak at length with my therapist about the modalities that he uses with me and with other clients, which range from Psychoanalysis to Cultural Relational to Cognitive Behavioral. He has explained that he strives to embody Carl Roger’s ideal of unconditional positive regard, which means placing no conditions on his complete acceptance of me and his other clients as people, whether we express “good” behaviors and emotions or “bad” ones.

My therapist is gifted at what he does, but truly unconditional positive regard is a tall order for any human. It’s surely easier to maintain that accepting stance when you’re only interacting with someone for fifty-five minutes per week—and then only at arm’s length—but even under those optimal conditions, the occasional raised eyebrow or sigh of disappointment will inevitably creep into any ongoing relationship, therapeutic or otherwise.

People like me used to rely on the institution of confession to divulge their deepest darkest secrets and nevertheless be met with absolution, with God’s unconditional love. And although my therapist comes from a Hindu rather than a Christian background, I find that I cannot help but consider him a conduit to the I am that I am.

His unconditional positive regard is imperfect, because he is human. But it is good enough to function as the light of grace—the light that coaxes out recognition of my flaws, my doubts, my trauma, my fourteen-generation genealogy—and teaches me how to accept it all, just as I am.

As a closing prayer, I encourage you to explore the many artists who have offered their own versions of Cohen’s Hallelujah, who range from Rufus Wainwright to Willie Nelson; from Ed Sheeran to Justin Timberlake; from Jeff Buckley to Jennifer Hudson… Every rendition is personal, is beautiful. Pick your favorite and pray in song with me, knowing that, despite our hardships and failures, God loves us without conditions, in 2020 and always:

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, Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah.