What I learnt from the high priest of pathos.
How Leonard Cohen took us to the mountains but also to the valleys to become public disciples.
In 2010 I stood in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and I cried. We’d been travelling now for about five and a half weeks, through 14 countries and it was over.
We had dodged corrupt police in Bulgaria, heard Turkmenistan state officials tapping into our calls home; and survived drunk, angry policemen demanding a bribe (it’s a common occurrence in Uzbekistan). But now it was over and our 1.0 litre Vauxhall has finally given up the ghost.
As our dreams of making it from London to Ulaanbaatar crumbled like the sand beneath our feet, a group of locals drove past and offered us a tow back to their community. Here Matt (my co-driver) and I could call for a mechanic. We said yes and head back through the mountains. An hour or so later we arrive at a collection of yurts and are welcomed into the house of our rescuers. They feed us “buuz”, a traditional meal of dumplings filled with meat which are cooked in steam, give us a space to rest, and once their mechanic has come to confirm our worst fears, they arrange onward travel for us.
Mongolia is a beautiful empty place — that’s why it’s called The Land of Blue Sky. Yet most of its people face a hard daily struggle to survive. Our hosts didn’t have much, but the little food and warmth they did, they were more than happy to share with us as their guests. By sharing a meal together, we shared friendships, joy and rest before our onward travel led us back through the mountains.
In today’s scripture (Matthew 17. 1–9) we read of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ glory on a mountain. Here we read that Peter and James and his brother John are led up a high mountain, by Jesus. Here they get a front-row seat into what Jesus’ Messiahship will involve.
They get a unique glimpse of a heavenly truth: the one who is to suffer is God’s chosen, Messiah, his son. They see for themselves the true nature of Jesus which is shown in his divine glory. What they see here on this mountain changes them. It changes their understanding of what public discipleship is. It changes them, so that when they head back down into the valleys they are changed people.
In this scene we read Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah. Now Matthew’s Gospel is largely concerned with the end times and what this means for his Jewish audience reading his text. That’s why Matthew wrote it. He expends on Mark’s account to include stories that have specific importance for the Jewish reader — and this text is one of those examples.
Might I suggest that at the heart of Matthew’s account lies one luminous insight: Jesus is the fulfilment of Moses legacy. The whole of Matthew’s Gospel is an appeal for his readership to see that Jesus is the continuation of Judaism and the Messiah for the whole of creation.
In this mountain moment God declares Jesus’ sonship and his love for him.
Human beings have a history of connecting with God on mountains. Moses received the law on Mount Sini. Elijah renewed his vision for God up in “high places”. For Israel mountains represented revelation.
In Matthew’s mountain moment we glimpse behind the scenes; in the coming atonement of Jesus Christ a new Gospel of law and love will be established. Both Moses and Elijah experienced rejection and suffering in their God-given mission and Jesus is now the ultimate fulfilment of that.
The scene continues and in the dazzling lights, cloud, and voice of God the disciples rightly fall down in fear. But Jesus notices their behaviour and instructs them not to fear. In their stumbling, he picks them up.
This message was true for them and it is true for us today.
One of my favourite theologians, Leonard Cohen, wrote many beautiful songs and poems which touch the lives of millions. Cohen was called “the high priest of pathos” and the “godfather of gloom”, wrote a beautiful song called, If it be your will?
Cohen was often prone to depression, yet his witty, charming and self-expressive manner — not to mention his ability to articulate the ugliness of life — are reflected in these lyrics.
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
You see, as one magazine wrote about Cohen, “He was obsessed with mortality, God-infused, and funny.” He was a person on a journey. A person preparing himself to be at peace with his mortality. He was a broken person who was looking for answers. He took us to the mountains but also to the valleys.
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
While, of course, this song is personal to Cohen, it seems to me that he’s is asking someone (maybe a creator God) some pretty deep theological questions on the nature of our humanity.
And these are questions most of us have asked ourself to get us to this point. Questions of identity, mortality, purpose and even how do we save ourselves — from ourselves.
Matthew account of the transfiguration is clear on where we find our true identity. It is in Jesus we know where this all ends — it ends by us heading home and meeting our maker. Not with Moses, not with Elijah.
In the desert of Mongolia my mortality clashed with my myself — and I hated it. It had never crossed my mind that I’d not complete the rally without help, but I was wrong.
In the songs and poems of Cohen, we are reminded that humanity is waiting to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. And as Christians, we have become dual citizens of the Kingdom of God and we are called to help and love all of his creation. We are now public disciples.
John and James asked Jesus if they could build shelters but he ignores them. Why? Because we’re called to step down from the mountains with God and go in to the valleys of our world.
May we know that God draws near and he holds us tight. And Jesus Christ he stepped straight into society — and so must we.