03 April 2021

Poems for Holy Week 2021:
8, Leonard Cohen, ‘If it be your will’

Christ in the tomb, ‘Epitaphios’ by Theophanes the Cretan

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 3 April 2021

Reading: John 19: 38-42

Each evening in Holy Week this year, I have been reading a poem to help our reflections. There are no liturgical provisions for today, as Christ lays in the tomb this Saturday, but my choice of a poem for this last day in Holy Week is another poem/song by Leonard Cohen, ‘If it be your will’.

Saint Luke alone tells us that Christ’s last words on the Cross were: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (see Luke 23: 46). This saying, which is an announcement and not a request, is traditionally called ‘The Word of Reunion,’ for Christ has accepted the will of God the Father in Heaven.

This is the seventh and final of the Seven Last Words. It is followed by silence – the silence of this Saturday, the silence of the grave, the silence of Christ lying in the tomb, the silence of the disciples who have lost their sense of direction, their focus, their understanding, their control – and our silence before the resurrection.

So often I want to be in control. I want to control the agenda, I want to control conversations, I want to control discussions. And I particularly want to control the words I use, the words others are going to hear me say.

And so, I am humbled at times when I listen to Leonard Cohen’s song, If it be your will.

I was at most of Leonard Cohen’s concerts in Ireland. He ended many of those concerts singing this poem, which for me is about submission to God’s will, accepting God’s will, leaving God in control of my spirit:

Leonard Cohen sings of his nearly complete subjection to the divine will.

If he is told to be silent, he will be silent; if he is told to sing, he will sing.

If he is allowed to express his true voice (‘if a voice be true’), he will sing in praise of God from ‘this broken hill’ … from Calvary?

The mercy of God, the compassion of God, the love of God, redeems the burning hearts in hell … if it is God’s will.

Leonard Cohen’s great hope in this will leads to prayer, to the one who can ‘make us well’ if we devote ourselves to God, pray to God, sing to God.

But he still prays to God to act on behalf of the suffering.

Cajoling God in song and poetry, Cohen says God has the power to ‘end this night’ of the darkness of the human condition, in which people are dressed in only dirty ‘rags of light’ that are fragmented, that are not fully whole and illuminated.

In this song, I imagine Christ on the cross as he speaks to God the Father as his agony comes to its close:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before.

The broken hill is Golgotha where he has been crucified, the rugged and rocky Mount of Calvary.

‘Let the rivers fill’ may refer to the water of his thirst, the water of his sweat, the water that streams from his side, the waters of baptism, the Living Water that will never leave us to thirst.

If it be your will
To make us well
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell

The Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe says: ‘We must wait for the resurrection to break the silence of the tomb.’ We must speak up when it is necessary, and to have the courage to speak is ‘ultimately founded upon the courage to listen.’

But at the grave, at times of desolation, at times when there is no answer, we may also be called to be silent.

Leonard Cohen on at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘If it be your will,’ Leonard Cohen

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

‘If It Be Your Will’ … Leonard Cohen and The Webb Sisters, Live in London

John 19: 38-42 (NRSVA):

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

The Collect:

Grant, Lord,
that we who are baptized into the death
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
may continually put to death our evil desires
and be buried with him;
and that through the grave and gate of death
we may pass to our joyful resurrection;
through his merits, who died and was buried
and rose again for us,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

If It Be Your Will lyrics © Bad Monk Publishing

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