Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

In the last issue I spoke of the imagery of blood in Covenant hymnody and how it reflects the centrality of the atoning death of Jesus in our theology. While the Hymnal Commission did not include the hymn by William Cowper, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood," it was not because it isn’t a good hymn nor because it is blood thirsty but because in a literal-minded culture like ours, it could be misunderstood by many people who would be repulsed by the very thing they need most. I share my regret with author Kathleen Norris that in losing this hymn we will not get to sing "Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be ’til I die" which continues in the last verse:

Then in a nobler, sweeter song I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave.

It is interesting, however, that devotional hymns contemplating the Passion of Jesus, while laden with emotion and images of blood, do not evoke feelings of revulsion or violate the sense of good taste. Rather, the best of these meditative hymns address the saving event of Jesus’ death as the transforming, renewing, and sanctifying work of God in the minds and hearts of believers.

In the Lutheran tradition, Paul Gerhardt’s striking and graphic hymn of the Passion is sung with awe and often with tears in Holy Week:

O sacred Head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns, they only crown.
And drawn into the pain and anguish of his death, we fall prostrate in adoring wonder and sing:
O make me thine forever, and, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.
(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, Hymn 23)

In a similar way, the hymns of Issac Watts draw us into the Passion narrative in our reflecting on the unfolding drama. One of the most well-known of all the hymns of Lent must surely be "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." The sense of time is transcended as the singer is transported to the sacred ground beneath the cross as a witness to his dying.

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?

In contemplating the wondrous cross, one can only be overwhelmed by "love so amazing, so divine" so that a liberating and transforming moment occurs in the heart of the believer.

All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
—The Covenant Hymnal, Hymn 222

"Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed" is another Watts’ hymn of the Passion that contemplates the great sacrifice with an appreciation for the inestimable cost. This is quite different from the early Swedish Moravian hymnody where the wounds of Jesus are also praised:

Thou well of blessedness,
I open my mouth;
Let thy blood run
And I shall be content…
a single blood drop
Out of thy wounds
Stills my moan,
And calms my suffering.
—From Moses and lammsens visor, 1839)

Whereas lines need to be drawn at hymns speaking of a fountain filled with blood, or blood dripping from open wounds or other weird stuff, I would assess the range of our hymns drawing on blood imagery to be too limited by their subjectivity. Even in the finest of our devotional hymns of the Passion, it is so easy to narrow Jesus down to our Jesus, to our experience, to our way of knowing thereby missing the cosmic significance of his atoning death. What is lacking in many of our Passion hymns is the strong, bracing tonic of the early hymn writer, Fortunatus (530-609 CE) in his classic hymn "Sing My Tongue.

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle;
Sing the ending of the fray.
Now above the cross the trophy
Sound the loud triumphant lay;
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,
As a victim won the day.
Tell how, when at length the fullness
Of the appointed time was come,
He, the Word was born of woman,
Left for us his Father’s home,
Blazed the path of true obedience,
Shone as light amidst the gloom.
Thus, with thirty years accomplished,
He went forth from Nazareth,
Destined, dedicated, willing,
Did his work, and met his death;
Like a lamb he humbly yielded
On the cross his dying breath.
Faithful cross, true sigh of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in bloom,
None in fruit your equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For your burden makes us free.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, Hymn 118)

The human Jesus, blood and all, includes us in a cosmic redemption. Again, as Kathleen Norris says, "The rhythm of life that we carry in our veins is not only for us, but for others, as Christ’s Incarnation (and death) was for the sake of all."

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen Wiberg