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Singing the Meaning of Christ's Death

Why did Christ die? If you asked people in your church this question, their answer might be informed by what they learned in Sunday school or from a catechism. It might be that the meaning of Christ’s death became clearer to them through Bible study or through consistent preaching. But it is also likely that hymns have shaped their understanding of Christ’s death. What a gift! But with this gift also comes a responsibility, particularly for those in the church who determine the congregation’s diet of hymns. How shall we sing of Christ’s death? What does it mean?

Holy Scripture is resplendent with metaphors that help us understand the meaning of the crucifixion. Leanne Van Dyk offers some broad strokes:

There was some kind of victory that took place, some kind of power shift in the universe, some kind of ransom paid, some kind of healing initiated, some ultimate kind of love displayed, some kind of dramatic rescue effected. (Sally A. Brown, Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 140)

Yes, yes—all of this! The problem is not that we fail to sing about Christ’s death. Sometimes the problem is that we doggedly focus on one meaning, distilling the full spectrum to one ephemeral notion or a rigid theory. The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of our faith. Not only in Passiontide but on every Lord’s Day we should strive to offer a breadth of song in worship that gives form to the congregation’s understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection—a breadth that reflects the full biblical witness.

Some Kind of Ransom Paid: “Before the Throne of God Above”

The metaphor of the courtroom is one most North Americans understand. Perhaps that is why our congregations readily latch on to biblical courtroom imagery. There is a legal transaction and appropriate judgment manifested in Christ’s sacrificial death. But in this hymn we have something other than mundane legalese. Here, the court proceedings—from the plea bargaining and prosecution to the ransom and pardon—are lyrically celebrated in Charitie Lees DeCheney Bancroft’s text.

The hymn is theologically grounded and, when sung to the melody composed by Vikki Cook, it absolutely soars. In fact, many assume that this text and tune came down the mountain together. Not so. The text was composed in 1863 and has long been in the public domain. Early on it was associated with various Long Meter tunes such as SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, DUANE STREET, and SAGINA. (See page 19 for another text with SAGINA.) By the second half of the 20th century the hymn was no longer appearing in hymnals. In 2006 the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) sought to revive the hymn, publishing it with the winsome tune DUNEDIN. But it was Cook’s new melody, made popular through recordings disseminated on the radio and via the Internet, that finally brought the hymn out of obscurity.

The melody has the quality of an Irish ballad. Its wide range (an octave plus a 5th) may otherwise have eliminated it from consideration for hymnals. But the song initially made it into people’s hearts through recordings and projected text, not notated hymnals. When you have a combination of a beautiful, intuitive melody with a compelling text, congregations are more than willing to embrace the octave leaps and high tessitura.

The melody suggests a folk-like, uncluttered accompaniment. The harmonies could be initiated by a guitar, an accordion, or piano. The melody could be marked by a violin or fiddle, or a penny whistle adding subtle grace notes. Perhaps the hymn could begin with a soloist or ensemble. When the congregation joins in, let the organ make a subtle entrance, but steer clear of the mixtures! Fusing the foundational sound of the organ to the accompanying ensemble helps the congregation to feel supported in their singing.

Optional Readings

Consider reading one or more of these Scripture passages before singing “Before the Throne of God Above”: 2 Corinthians 4:7-12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 Peter 1:17-21.

Optional Concluding Prayer

O God, our only true Judge,
our sin has earned us your condemnation.
Yet in love you gave your Son, who died for us and rose for us.
Now reigning with you, he pleads for us.
As your pardoned people, help us every day to die to sins and live for righteousness,
for we pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord. Amen.

Prayer: Melissa Haupt, 2014 © Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike. Reprints are permitted.

Some Kind of Healing Initiated: “Were You There”

This African American spiritual has found its place in almost every modern hymnal. In that regard it hardly needs introduction. But what does it tell us about the meaning of Christ’s death?

I think we have missed this song’s message. When it comes to Christmas carols and Passion hymns, Euro-Americans gravitate toward “travelogue” lyrics. We sing carols that bring us to Bethlehem, where we peek in on shepherds in fields or the family at Bethlehem’s manger. In our Passion hymns we are tempted to drop in on Gethsemane’s garden, the upper room, the Golgotha scene, to be fascinated or repulsed by the drama and gore. But too often we fail to sing the scene into our present realities, to where we are, and to ask, “What does it mean?”

That’s how I’ve experienced the singing of “Were You There” at many a Tenebrae or Good Friday liturgy. The spiritual becomes a sort of time capsule transporting us to first-century Palestine, to “be there,” to sense the drama.

The immediacy of these spirituals hints at their intended message. Were you there? Or, in another spiritual, Don’t you hear him calling his Father? The words are not always congruent with the gospel accounts: “He never said a mumblin’ word . . . ” “They whipped him all night long . . .” “They nailed him to a tree . . .” But through these songs an enslaved people were trying to make sense of their own suffering. There was no distance. They were there. They were close—too close. Trembling. But in Christ they found a friend and Savior who would suffer with them. The song does not attempt to answer the question of why Jesus died. But it does point to a God who will stoop down to humanity and suffer with us.

Keep the singing of this song simple. Sing it a capella. Let go of the harmony. The bare bones are all that you need to get at the immediate sense of the song. Sing it without opening the hymnal. This is a call-and-response-style song; all you need is a leader to sing the first phrase of the next stanza. The listening congregation can then join in at the second phrase.

It seems odd to sing these words from a screen. We don’t need to see the words. But what about images? You can find many examples of projectable backgrounds matched with “Were You There.” Some use graphic scenes from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The problem is that this can perpetuate our appetite for time travel, our unconscious wish to fly past the suffering in the world of today. The spiritual asks, “Who does Christ suffer with today? Where, when, and how can we be the healing presence of Christ in the world today?” Project that.

Optional Readings

Consider reading one or both of these Scripture passages before singing: Philippians 2:6-8; John 1:1-5, 14.

Optional Concluding Prayer

O God, in the midst of suffering and despair we so often ask, “Where are you?”
Help us to see that even as you were there, nailed to a cross,
so too you are here, sharing our pain.
We cry, “Where are you?” and you graciously hear us.
May we have ears to hear when you ask: “Where are you?”
In this world still haunted by violence, injustice, and anguish,
embolden us to be there, to make Christ’s healing presence known
and to share in his suffering,
so that we may be filled with joy when his glory is revealed.
We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Prayer: Melissa Haupt, 2014 © Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike. Reprints are permitted.

Some Kind of Victory That Took Place: “Refuge and Rock” (Psalm 18)

One of the dominant atonement metaphors in the first millennium of Christendom was that of Christus Victor. Christ, by a preposterous yet perfect plan, routs and ultimately conquers the realm of evil. The forces of Satan could not have anticipated such a weapon as Divine self-sacrifice. Much of the art of the early church portrays a victorious crucified Christ.

Hymns of the church fathers extol Christ as conqueror. One of these hymns, the Pange Lingua by the 6th-century Venantius Honorius Fortunatus, continues to be sung in its original Latin as well as in English paraphrase. The first stanza of John Mason Neale’s translation is still well known in some communities, but the more obscure stanzas developing the Christus Victor metaphor are, for the most part, unknown. Consider stanzas 1 and 3:

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the Cross, the victor’s trophy,
Sound the high triumphal lay:
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
As a victim won the day.

For the work of our salvation
Needs would have his order so,
And the multiform Deceiver’s
Art by art would overthrow,
And from thence would bring the med’cine
Whence the insult of the foe.

The suggestion is that God, through Christ, foils the Deceiver by answering with a divine shrewdness, giving the foe “a taste of his own medicine,” if you will. This archaic metaphor is not completely lost in our contemporary imagination. C. S. Lewis revived it in his allegorical writing of The Chronicles of Narnia. The resurrected Aslan explains that the Witch failed to recognize a magic more powerful than her own. Aslan’s voluntary sacrifice overcomes death itself and reverses the effects of the Witch’s evil magic.

One of the streams that fed this metaphor of the victor was the psalter. The early church looked to the psalms to foretell and interpret the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul quotes Psalm 68 to teach about Christ’s victory: “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people” (Eph. 4:8, NRSV). Likewise, the vivid battle imagery and ensuing victory recounted in Psalm 18 gave rise to the metaphor of Christus Victor. At verse 26 we read of God: “to the devious you show yourself shrewd” (NIV). Though we might find “shrewdness” a strange attribute to assign to God, in the hands of a Redeemer such cunning brings about a power shift in the universe.

Martin Leckebusch’s fresh versification of Psalm 18 reflects well the understanding of Christ’s death as a pivotal victory in the battle with evil. Christ’s death is already triumph. We glory in the cross.

Matched with the melody EARTH AND ALL STARS, the psalm sings as a joyful Pange Lingua. Here we can invite the bright tones of the organ and add the brass and timpani. Don’t let the tempo drag. Notice Leckebusch’s playful rhyme scheme at the end of each stanza. The final rhyme does not come at the end of the line, but rather several syllables back at the melodic climax of the phrase. A soloist or ensemble might bring this out. In order to help the congregation make a connection between the psalm and Christ’s victory on the cross, frame the singing with pertinent Scripture or preaching prior to singing the psalm, and conclude with a prayer in praise of Christ’s victory.

Optional Readings

Consider reading one or more of these Scripture passages before singing: Colossians 2:13-15; John 12:23-32; 1 Corinthians 1:18-19.

Optional Concluding Prayer

O God, you are our Refuge, Rock, Shield, and Deliverer.
By the cross of Jesus Christ you have confounded the foe.
Death has been swallowed up in victory!
Your Wisdom is from the beginning, before the world began.
It is beyond our understanding.
Thanks be to you, O God!
You have given us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.
It is in his matchless name that we pray. Amen.

Prayer: Melissa Haupt, 2014 © Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike. Reprints are permitted.

Some Ultimate Kind of Love Displayed: “And Can It Be”

The meaning of the death of Christ cannot be wrestled down into neatly rhymed stanzas. No one knew this better than the prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley. Perhaps none of his hymns explore the range of meaning of Christ’s death more than “And Can It Be.” Yet even here, Wesley acknowledges the futility of attempting to sound such depths of love; it is an ocean far too deep.

“And Can It Be:” Charles Wesley’s original text (1739)

1. And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

2. ’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

3. He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

4. Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

5. Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

6. No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The opening two stanzas form a preamble. Note that there are more questions than assertions. But note also the exclamation marks: Love! Mercy! Mystery! Christ’s sacrifice is incomprehensible. Angels should not even attempt further inquiry. But that doesn’t stop Wesley from exploring it in the ensuing stanzas.

Not only in Passiontide but on every Lord’s Day we should strive to offer a breadth of song in worship that gives form to the congregation’s understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection—a breadth that reflects the full biblical witness.

Most modern hymnals are selective in choosing from Wesley’s original stanzas, and concessions are often made in order to clarify language. But sometimes this is at the cost of theological meaning and the breadth of atonement imagery. Stanza 5, in particular, is absent from modern hymnals. The idea of heavenly wrath and hostility seems incongruous with the depths of love divine. But there is biblical warrant for this. Incongruity is part of the deal. “’Tis mystery all!” We are sometimes too eager to solve the conundrums. Perhaps once in a while we could break out Wesley’s “uncut” version complete with the perplexing original text, and try to live with the tension.

“And Can It Be” is most commonly sung to the tune SAGINA. Though the melody is fraught with leaps and arpeggios, those who know the melody will sing it with gusto. But the sense of mystery can be lost in the melodic gymnastics. Decades ago the group GLAD came to my college campus. They sang a beautiful rendition of “And Can It Be” set to a tune by Bob Kauflin. It completely changed my experience of the song. I have not found this version published in any hymnal (it should be!) but the GLAD arrangement for men’s voices is still available at www.glad-pro.com, with a YouTube sound recording available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txD_EpFlfXQ. More recently, S.T. Kimbrough introduced me to another commendable tune by a Russian Methodist minister, Ludmila Garbuzova. She wrote it for a Russian translation of the text, but it also works beautifully with the original English. Kimbrough encouraged her to add pauses after each sentence in stanza 1. This allows the questions of the introspective text to sink in.

The accompaniment should be kept simple. The melodic syntax might, at first glance, suggest a calypso possibility, but that is not what we’re after here! Simple guitar or piano with perhaps a string or woodwind doubling the melody is all that is needed.

Optional Readings

Consider reading one or both of these Scripture passages before singing: 2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2; John 3:11-16.

Optional concluding prayer

God of majesty and mystery,
we stand in wonder of your amazing love,
a love beyond our deserving and yet freely given.
Your Son, Jesus Christ, took on our nature and died for us on the cross.
How can that be?
This is a love so amazing, a love so divine,
it goes beyond our ability to fathom, let alone repay.
We can but offer you our souls, our lives, our all.
We do this through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever. Amen.

Prayer: Melissa Haupt, 2014 © Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike. Reprints are permitted.