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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 9 (Good Friday): "When I survey the wondrous cross"

“They stood at a distance watching these things.” We’ve already explored that theme of watching, looking, contemplating, seeing into the mystery of the cross. And now we find it continued into our final hymn. Here is another contemplative who can only gaze on the cross in utter wonderment and gratitude, and write about it in an exquisitely beautiful poem. When I survey the wondrous cross.

Some would say it’s the greatest passion hymn ever written. Charles Wesley would have given a thousand of his hymns if only he could have written this one. Isaac Watts wrote it for his collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs that he published in 1707. A nonconformist, it is remarkable that this hymn was originally written as a devotion to be sung at the eucharist. What the poet is surveying is the mystery of bread broken and wine poured out on the table of the Lord where the worshipper sees the visible words of grace spoken from the wondrous cross where from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down.

The text Isaac Watts has in mind is a saying of St Paul near the end of his letter to the Galatians. He is discussing things people find it worth boasting about. It brings out of him one of the noblest declarations in all his writings: “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” To Paul, to the hymn writer, the cross is the pearl of great price you would sell everything to gain. It is a treasure of infinite worth. Nothing can be compared to it. You might as well hold up a candle to look at the sun. My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

One of the psalms reflects on what we human beings tend to envy in others: their names and achievements, their wisdom, wealth or honour. But, says the psalm, don’t make yourself miserable by dwelling on those who boast of such things. In the face of our own mortality, we stand as equals because in the end we can’t take any of them with us. “Human beings cannot abide in their pomp: they are like the beasts that perish.” And St Paul, in a brilliant inversion of that psalm, says yes, death is the great leveller, and in particular, the death of Jesus. Whoever, whatever we are, when we survey the wondrous cross, all that we are proud of is put into the perspective of eternity, God’s perspective. There is nothing worth boasting about any more except this. Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ my God. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

The next two stanzas explore why the green hill of Golgotha is at the very centre of Christian faith and life. Where else do sorrow and love meet and mingle and flow down together like this? Those two words go to the heart of the paradox of Good Friday. Sorrow would be a natural enough response to this pain and suffering that we survey ­our sorrow for the innocent victim, his sorrow as “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief”: “behold and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow” – words that are familiar to us from the music of Handel’s Messiah.

But linked to the word love, sorrow takes on a more profound meaning. For if the love we see on the cross is nothing less than God’s, then so must the sorrow be too. Perhaps there is a clue in Jesus’s drawing near to Jerusalem when, say the gospels (and how striking this is), he looks down at the city and weeps over it. “if you had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.” So we imagine the cross as the everlasting sign of God’s sorrow for his world, the grief that pierces his heart of love, where divine tears are always shed because human beings have so signally turned away from the paths of goodness and truth, of reconciliation, healing and flourishing. Jesus is the archetypal innocent on whom cruel men have turned in their hatred of all that is beautiful and good. But he is also the sign of the heartbreak of God himself at our ignorance, destructiveness and folly.

Which is why the hymn needs to boast of the love that it sees flowing down from the cross. For when sorrow and love are joined together, sorrow is never desperate or hopeless. It has a redeeming aspect that speaks of God’s intent that this world should be remade, and within it, our own broken lives. Isaac Watts reminds us who is king here at Golgotha. The signs of royalty are in the thorns that press cruelly into the fragile flesh of this Man of Sorrows and compose so rich a crown, and in his dying crimson like a robe.  They tell of a suffering that is intended and is purposeful, and which, far from subverting the kingship of Jesus proclaim its inner nature.

The kingdom of God is not about the panoply of the powerful and proud before which subjects cower in trembling and fear. The fear and trembling we feel at the cross is altogether different. For God’s kingship is both infinitely more humble and infinitely more strong. It announces the power of love and this is what draws us here and makes us to look. The spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And it answers that question by speaking of what goes through us when we say our yes: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”.

The hymn writer draws the only possible conclusion. He goes back to St Paul: then am I dead to all the globe, and all the globe is dead to me. What is there to live for if not for the Lord of glory who is crucified before us? And his final verse captures what our response will be, can only be, on this Good Friday when we survey the wondrous cross. Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. So what do we do in the light of Golgotha where we see love so amazing, so divine?

I think the answer is both nothing and everything. The “nothing” is to recognise that we cannot add to what Jesus has done there. When, in our reading from the Passion, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, you hear not agonised despair but the trustful affirmation that Jesus’s living and dying have come to a good end, a resolution, and Jesus can offer himself to God as the servant and son who has been obedient to the suffering he was called to undergo. It is his work of redemption, not ours. And because this is a gift without price, nothing can possible equal it, not anything we can offer, not even the whole realm of nature – it would be an offering far too small in the face of God’s infinite sorrow and love.

But there is something we must do. We must say our wholehearted yes to the cross. We must be thankful. We must submit to this kingdom of love, embrace it, live it, give ourselves to it, recognise how it changes everything, for Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. On this Good Friday, there is nothing we would not do for the Love that has searched us out and known us, offered itself for us so that we might live again and find our hope once more.

So this solemn day is not for mourning. It is a time for profound thankfulness, a time to be glad. We who walked in the darkness of Golgotha have seen a great light. It is a good day.

Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.44-49

When I survey the wondrous Cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Isaac Watts 1674-1748   

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