My Favorite Hymn

It’s by a protestant, but I couldn’t help but think of it while taking part in the Stations of the Cross at St. Paul’s this Good Friday:

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.

“See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” What’s to say about it, really? There’s no commentaty to add. The picture is perfect.

I guess that’s why I’ve always loved this song. Long before I was a Catholic contemplating the Stations of the Cross, this song brought my mind to Calvary. It draws you into the subject so that you really experience the passion. It tells you to look and see for yourself. In doing so, it inspires more devotion than a thousand Easter sermons ever could. It’s one thing to be told that Jesus died for the sins of all people; it’s another to see it happen, even if the sight is by the mind’s eye.

The use of imagery, I think, also means the song’s power does not depend on theological interpretations of the crucifixion. How, exactly, did Jesus’ death reconcile humanity to God? The song does not say, leaving us to experience the sacrifice through whatever explanation we’ve been taught. However Jesus’ death may have atoned for sin, the point is that it atoned for sin.

I’ll even say that the song is powerful if you think Jesus’ death did nothing but end his life. That is, if you think everything the Christians celebrate this weekend is a myth – that in reality Jesus was nuts, or the whole thing never happened – it’s a myth of the highest order and well worth spending a few moments pondering. The whole thing may be an ancient story, but who wouldn’t benefit from such an example of self-sacrifice, patience, faith, and love?

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One Comment on “My Favorite Hymn”

  1. Kathy Says:

    Lovely post, Wheeler. Back in my chancel choir days, we used to sing a beautifully overwrought setting of this hymn — it modulated a half-step up with almost every verse, and it ended up with the few of us sopranos who could do it belting out a high c-sharp. In my more recent praise band days, we also had a nice arrangement, not so overwrought (good thing, because I don’t have that high c-sharp anymore), but still beautiful. The words do indeed tell the whole story.


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