Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen
The song Anthem first appeared on Leonard Cohen’s 1992 album, The Future, and quickly became one of his most enduring and oft-quoted lyrics. Typical of Cohen’s work, it contains allusions to his Jewish background, as well as references to the Buddhist religion of his adulthood and the Christian faith that continued to intrigue him. These are the words of a man searching for human wholeness. It’s this, the healing and renewal of human beings, and indeed all of creation, that I want to explore in this post. Wholeness is the third gift of Advent.
RING THE BELLS THAT STILL CAN RING
When Cohen calls on us to ring the bells that still can ring, he’s urging us to keep searching for the holy, to not give up the hope that there is healing in the offing. In his book Diamonds in the Line, he wrote of this lyric,
I mean, you have to come up with a philosophical ground. We’re in a dismal situation… and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them.
The bells represent the sound of the holy, the music of restoration, the resounding tone of all things made right.
There are various biblical terms to describe this wholeness – shalom (peace), hesed (loving kindness), mispat and tsedeqah (righteousness/justice) – all of which point to a coming time where sickness and disease will end, along with violence and suffering, famine and flood, where the world will be healed. In other eras, different cultures have given their own names to this – utopia, nirvana, the beloved community, Elysium, Arcadia, heaven. It is the state of sublime wellness that humankind has yearned for since the beginning of time, but could it be that in the secular West we are losing our hunger for it?
As Cohen says, we are in a dismal situation. It feels like it’s a time when no one wants to ring any bells, when everyone has given up on the hope of a better day. We’re done with capitalism, socialism, communism, humanism, secularism, and every other kind of ism, because none of it has delivered the healing we so desperately want.
But don’t give up.
The message of Christmas is the sound of a bell that still can ring. It’s heard in the announcement by the heavenly host to the terrified shepherds: “On earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14). You can hear the bell sounding in Mary’s song and in Zechariah’s prayer for his unborn song, John, to prepare the way for the Lord and to “shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Lk 1:79).
There is one bell that still can ring. There is hope.
FORGET YOUR PERFECT OFFERING
As Cohen explains it, to forget your perfect offering is to give up the illusion that that we can work this thing out: “This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect.”
No offering of mine or yours can set things right. We are stuck in our brokenness, and true wisdom lies in realising our impotence and looking elsewhere for our hope. As I said, we’ve tried every human solution imaginable.
But Jesus came announcing this wholeness had arrived, not by virtue of any offering any human had made. It was the gift of God. The kingdom of God, as he called it, was now present in a new and powerful sense. And to prove it, he healed people of all manner of diseases. He freed people from their bondage to the powers of evil. He offered people forgiveness apart of Temple sacrifices. He launched God’s plan of wholeness and it began to spread throughout the region like a beautiful virus, or a spreading flame.
Jesus called on his followers to love their neighbors, to bring healing to the broken, and to offer forgiveness and restoration in face of wrongdoing, even though he knew we were incapable of achieving it. He knew that our best offering was far from perfect, so he resolved to make the most perfect offering himself. He was to be the subject of the ultimate healing, the defeat of death itself. God raised Jesus from the dead to demonstrate once and for all that he means to bring healing not condemnation, inclusion not exclusion, forgiveness not punishment.
THERE IS A CRACK IN EVERYTHING
Everything is broken. “And worse,” said Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind.”
Nothing can be repaired by that which needs repair itself.
In the midst of the promises of wholeness made to us in the story of Jesus we still find ourselves surrounded by sickness, by environmental destruction, by war and terror, disaster and misfortune. When will it end?
THAT’S HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN
As Leonard Cohen says, “But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”
The coming of Christ, and his promised second coming, reveal that it is God’s plan to bring wholeness to creation, centered on communities of broken people who know God’s love and share that love with other human beings. The light isn’t revealed through the absence of brokenness, but through the cracks themselves, when broken people, redeemed by Christ, allow the light of Christ’s love to shine through.
As Fleming Rutledge wrote, “In a very deep sense, the entire Christian life in this world is lived in Advent, between the first and second comings of the Lord, in the midst of the tension between things the way they are and things the way they ought to be.”
Advent calls us to that tension, to forget our perfect offering, to acknowledge there is a crack in everything, but also to believe with all our might that the resurrection light of Jesus can shine through our most feeble attempts to bring healing and wholeness, peace and love to this broken world.