Among great 1960s folk songs is “The Weight” by The Band. As you listen, it might take you on an interesting Lenten odyssey. A collaborative effort led by drummer Robbie Robertson, the lyrics do a deep dive for those seeking spiritual messaging, though the artists claim that searchers read far more into the words than they intended. What do you think?
The story unfolds while on a road trip through Pennsylvania when they pulled into Nazareth, dead tired and seeking some rest. In a state full of cities and towns with biblical names like Bethlehem, Jericho, and Nineveh, it also, conversely, has towns with names like Climax, Intercourse, and Noodle Doosie. Upon arrival, they ask a man about a place to lodge but he gives them the same negative response that Joseph and Mary got when they inquired 2,000 years earlier when Christ arrived in our domain as they entered Bethlehem.
This parable begins there before meandering through encounters with the Devil, Moses, Luke, judgment day, and taking the heavy burden from some so it can be put onto another. In addition to characters with biblical connections there are others that are real people known to the band: Crazy Chester, Young Anna Lee, and Carmen, who walks with the lord of lies and great deceiver. Robertson said that their message is about the impossibility of sainthood and the difficulty of living up to demands placed upon us. As good and evil wrestle around in the lyrics, he pokes fun at religious hypocrisy, patriarchy, and middle-class culture that admonishes the baby boomer generation.
Everywhere the storyteller goes on his journey, someone asks something of him: Carmen, Luke, and Crazy Chester. Christ, who carries the weight of the world, bears it in the weight of the cross that He shoulders for us, including all our struggles that we turn into prayers (asking things of Him). As Carmen ceases to hang out with the devil and Luke waits for judgement day, temptation and redemption battle on; meanwhile, Chester follows the cross bearer, who is in the fog, as anyone who faces immanent death would be. As his rack is fixed (or the cross is fixed onto him, kind of like Simon of Cyrene helping to carry Jesus’ cross), the time arrives and the one who sent him gives regards to everyone: the whole world is to know.
“Miss Fanny,” the main character of the chorus, is possibly a reference to the place where the Holy Spirit finds a home in the human person. “Take a load off, Fanny…and put the load right on me.” The place on the lyrical map—whether the holy land or our own land or a place within our soul—marks the crossroads between the spiritual and the real. There Jesus’ bag is sinkin’ low as He breathes His last and it is time. Beyond half past dead, He arrives at the eternal now, the moment in which crucifixion and salvation coincide, where it is always Good Friday and simultaneously always Easter Sunday.
Every piece of literature, like every piece of art or poetry, has at least three levels of meaning. One is the surface level or intent of the artist; a second is the personal level for listeners or observers based on their own experiences; a third is what I call the “god-level” that is unknown to, or unintended by, the author but revealed to other hearts and minds. Such levels are seen in the Bible as deeper meanings continue to be unearthed, though many of the divinely inspired biblical authors may not have known they were divinely inspired. The sojourner in this story encounters some interesting characters, much as we do in our journey of life, and Jesus did on the road to Calvary. We are on this path to help one another bear the load. It might be a good message for us to take along on Fridays in Lent when we walk the Stations of the Cross or any day in which we desire that our humanity align better with God’s divinity.
As you consider the second and third levels of meaning beyond the original intent, consider, also, our Lenten journey portrayed at Sunday Mass going from the desert to the mountaintop to the temple. What I’m suggesting may have all kinds of merit in your thinking or maybe it has none, as Robertson would contend. Yet, just as God’s word keeps getting broken open anew based on changing times and circumstances, so can the words of one another carry great weight and inspire us to deeper levels. Are there any such lyrics that bear “the weight” in your life?