Bruce Cockburn’s The Whole Night Sky: A Holy Week Interpretation

Every Holy Week, when the Palm Sunday readings take us from the adulation of the crowd at Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem to their cries to crucify him only days later, the lyrics of a Bruce Cockburn song from The Charity of Night rise in my mind.

They turned their backs
I made it too hard
Every place they touched me
Is a laceration now

I think of those worshipful cries, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” turning to daggers of rejection when the true cost of loyalty (“if they hated me they will hate you“) is revealed.

As Christ is carted away on the night he is betrayed, as he wonders aloud to his closest friends, “Could you not remain awake one hour with me?” as he receives the kiss of Judas, the whips and mockery of the Roman soldiers, as his eyes meet Peter’s after the cock’s third crow and he receives a death sentence from the people he came to save, I hear him plea:

And look, see my tears
They fill the whole night sky
The whole night sky

In the Canadian singer/songwriter’s memoir Rumours of Glory, Cockburn spends more time describing the beauty of Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar accompaniment than he does explaining his lyrics, and the choice is exactly right. Cockburn chose to provide a window into the song’s final version, a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse into its production instead. He offers only this by way of interpretation:

Bonnie left us with a plaintively lovely guitar part that sings as much as I do about the melancholy chambers of the heartbroken soul.

I’d rather have a window into this song’s production than too many details inside the writing of it. Rumours of Glory reveals a good deal about the “melancholy chambers” of Cockburn’s own heart for those who want it (and having followed his work all my adult life, I do). Yet great art always leaves room for more.

I meet the melancholy chambers of God’s heartbroken soul every time I hear this song.

Everyone knows the feeling at one time or another: dejection, betrayal, agony, loneliness. Hearing Christ’s heart through these lines opens us to grace.

Derailed and desperate
How did I get here?
Hanging from this high wire
By the tatters of my faith

Especially during Holy Week, as we walk with Christ through his passion, this song can help us remember that we’re not alone even in our most desperate moments, because the God who gave us life is present in our pain, whether we feel that presence or not.

The brokenness we experience in “this valley of tears” happens through our individual and collective choices, yet we don’t always have the answer to the puzzle of our pain. When we walk through the passion, we can see that God really is love, that he went all the way into Godforsakenness in his identification with each one of us. No matter how far we may feel from him, we see at the cross that he’s anticipated this moment already. His cry is ours.

So when I feel that I’m hanging from a high wire by the tatters of my faith, I find Christ there first, hanging on the Cross, subjected to the “logic” of the skeptics: “He saved others, himself he cannot save, if you are the son of God come down from the Cross and then we will believe!”

When the wind “comes out of nowhere” and knocks me off my feet, I find that Christ allowed himself to be blindfolded, punched from every angle as his abusers jeer, “Who struck you?” This, as if his refusal to be made a clown disproves his claim to deity.

And look, see my tears
They fill the whole night sky
The whole night sky

“I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be as many as the grains of sand on the earth or the stars of the sky,” he promised Abraham in one of the most significant early moments in the revelation of our faith.

Each of us is a tear in God’s eye, a diamond of his sacrificial love, invited to the table, meeting that sacrificial love by letting God meet us when we feel most forsaken.

It illumines the whole night sky.

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Dylan, Springsteen, Rich Mullins, Audrey Assad, and Andrew Peterson are among the artists on my Holy Week playlist. See A Holy Week Playlist: Music for Meditating on the Death that Changed the World for more.

You might also like Brother: Song for Holy Thursday’s New Commandment.

What songs inspire you during this sacred time? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by Aperture Vintage on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Bruce Cockburn’s The Whole Night Sky: A Holy Week Interpretation

  1. A take-away for me was “…the God who gave us life is present in our pain, whether we feel that presence or not….”
    I’ve been feeling less than chipper – maybe pandemic precautions are catching up with me, and that’s another topic – and appreciate a reminder that God is God, regardless of my perceptions.

    1. “Less than chipper,” I know there’s a tidal wave behind that brave phrase. He is here. May you know it even in the darkness. Feeling less than chipper here too. I’m playing this song a lot.

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