Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday: "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"


Crucifixion was the most gruesome, ignominious means of execution utilized by the Romans to subdue the peoples who populated their Empire. The 3rd-century Church Father Origen expressed it best in his Commentary on Matthew (on Matt 27:22ff.), when he spoke (in its Latin version) of mors turpissima crucis ("the utterly vile death of the cross").

St. Paul likewise reflects this understanding when he writes in wonder of the depths of the self-humbling (etapeinōsen heauton) of the incarnate Christ, whose obedience extended even (de) to the point of submitting to "a cross death" (thanatou staurou) (Phil 2:8). One thing was certain, to Jew and Gentile alike: a crucified "Messiah" was a mere messianic pretender. And the evidence for this was in the public domain. Not surprisingly, as Paul well knew, proclamation of a crucified Messiah and Lord was both folly (mōria) to Greeks (not to mention the Romans who had sent him to the gallows) and a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews still waiting for a messianic deliverer (1 Cor 1:18).

Yet Paul, who had experienced his Easter on a trip to Damascus to round up Hellenist Christian rabble-rousers (Acts 9, inter alia), knew otherwise firsthand. As a result, he could speak paradoxically of the folly of the "message of the cross" (ho logos tou staurou) as the height of divine saving power and wisdom (1 Cor 1:24), and hence the content of the "gospel" (euangelion) he preached (1 Cor 1:18). Adherence to the message of the cross entailed a complete reordering of one's worldview. Whereas previously the zealous Pharisee Saul of Tarsus had placed his boast (kauchēsis) and confidence (pepoithēsis) in his Jewish identity and zeal for the Torah (Phil 3:4-6), he now considered such things, by contrast, to be "loss" (zymia) and even "crap" (skybala) in view of the greater glory of knowing Christ and possessing a right standing before God by faith (Phil 3:8). Henceforth he would only boast in Christ (Phil 3:3).

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Apostle's (probably) earliest letter, Galatians, where he writes to counteract the influence of Jewish Christian "agitators" who were insisting that Paul's Gentile converts be circumcised to become full members in God's Abrahamic covenant people. In the letter's Postscript, Paul accuses his opponents of insisting on circumcision "in order that they might boast in your flesh" (Gal 6:13). Presumably the opponents wouldn't have seen things this way—this is polemical correspondence, after all—but the fact was that such a victorious campaign on their part would have attested, according to their theological understanding, to their faithfulness to the Torah and, hence, to God. Paul, however, in supreme irony, counters with some of the most profound words ever to come from his pen:
But God forbid for me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).
The cross, of course, is the very cross on which Christ was "cursed" for "us" (i.e., Jewish Christians, in whose stead he bore the covenant curse they had incurred (Gal 3:13, with 3:10), thus freeing the "blessing of Abraham" to be extended, as God had promised, to the Gentiles (Gal 3:14). It is the cross whose significance would be nullified if people could be "justified" by adherence to the redundant Torah's demands (Gal 2:21). And it is the cross, the locus of Christ's supreme demonstration of love for his people, that, via our incorporation into the crucified Jesus, enables us to "live for God" even as it signaled our "death to the Torah" (Gal 2:19-20). It is this profound truth that Paul reiterates memorably in Galatians 6:14b. Through Christ's historisch crucifixion a further reciprocal (theological) crucifixion occurred, viz., the "world" to the believer and the believer to the world. In other words, through the believer's corporate participation in the once-for-all death of Christ, the relationship which the believer had with the world by virtue of physical birth has been severed completely. Hence he or she has been rescued from its dominion and made a partaker of the new creation (Gal 6:15) inaugurated by the accursed cross and the vindicating resurrection (Gal 1:1) which followed two days later and served, in part, to interpret the cross's significance.

No one understood the implications of this text better than the "Father of English Hymnody," the great Nonconformist scholar and theologian Isaac Watts. Though he wrote a textbook on Logic that was in use at Oxbridge for a hundred years, Watts is today best known as the earliest and, along with Charles Wesley, the greatest hymn writer the English-speaking world has produced. Among the 800 or so hymns he wrote, Watts produced such enduring classics as "Joy to the World," "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed," "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." But without a doubt his greatest hymn, one which the great Wesley once said he would have traded every one he had ever written if only he could have written this one, is the immortal "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," originally published in 1707 in his collection, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. The verses, which need no commentary, read thus:

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 I am 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.

I leave you with a splendidly refined performance of this hymn (set to the 1790 Rockingham tune as arranged by John Rutter) by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Jim. Excellent meditation for a Good Friday.