Monday, January 5, 2009

A Hill Called Mt. Calvary

Praise for the Lord #5

Words: Dale Oldham, Gloria Gaither & William J. Gaither, 1968
Music: William J. Gaither, 1968

Dale Oldham was the father of popular gospel singer Doug Oldham, a friend of the Gaithers, and in 1963 had suggested the line that led to their hit "He touched me".(Collins, 89) I have not been able to determine whether Oldham the same relationship to "A hill called Mt. Calvary". The Gaithers, one of the most enduring fixtures of the modern "commercial" gospel era, have contributed a number of songs that work well for congregational singing, such as the short choruses "Something beautiful" (PFTL #885) and "There's something about that name (PFTL #889), and the excellent verse-refrain song "Because He lives" (PFTL #68).

This song makes a strong statement when viewed in the context of its era. 1968 was the year that saw the vulgar theatrics of the Yippies in Chicago and the brutal police response, the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive in the war-that-wouldn't-end, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It was a year when the country seemed to be coming apart at the seams, with the active help of a good portion of its citizens. In light of the turmoil within the country, "A hill called Mt. Calvary" comes across as a reaffirmation of faith in the face of a turbulent era that questioned the very foundations of society.

Stanza 1:
There are things as we travel this earth's shifting sands,
That transcend all the reason of man;
But the things that matter the most in this world,
They can never be held in our hand.

Seems that we've heard this theme before:

When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.(Ecclesiastes 8:16-17)

Stark words, as usual, from the Preacher; but they are a necessary antidote to the hubris that dogs humanity's footsteps from ancient times down to our own. Some think that modern civilization has "progressed" since those days; no doubt this is one reason God preserved the Old Testament wisdom literature, to show us otherwise. True, we have more information today than at any time in the past; but are we any closer to the answers? For all this knowledge, how many people today can say with Paul, "I know Whom I have believed"?(2 Timothy 1:12)

I believe in a hill called Mount Calvary--
I believe whatever the cost;
And when time has surrendered and earth is no more,
I'll still cling to the old rugged cross

Words are powerful things. "Mount Calvary" is so embedded in our minds and hearts that it is surprising to learn that the Bible never refers to the place of crucifixion as a mountain or even a hill, and that "Calvary" itself is a term that has come to us by roundabout means. The gospel writers simply refer to it as "a place"; the tradition that it was a hill or mountain seems to have begun in later centuries as pilgrims described the holy sites they visited.(Catholic Encyclopedia) Our word "Calvary" comes to us from Luke 23:33 in the King James Version, where the term "Calvaria" ("the skull") is transliterated from the Latin Vulgate text. Not that there's anything wrong with that; but it is interesting that what might have been a single, obscure reference has such a hold on our language.

What is the cost of believing in the cross? To the modern American, the highest price to be paid is most likely to be scorn, ostracism, and perhaps mild discrimination at school or in the workplace. In other places, the cost might be loss or denial of employment, loss of civil rights, imprisonment, or death. Nor need we look back to ancient times for examples! As Jesus said,

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?... So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.(Luke 14:27-33)

But if we choose to pay that cost--to take up the cross--we have the assurance that we have chosen the better part, because the power of that cross will last when this earth is no more.

Stanza 2:
I believe that the Christ who was slain on the cross,
Has the power to change lives today;
For He changed me completely, a new life is mine;
That is why by the cross I will stay.

"We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."(Romans 6:4) The fact that Christ changes lives is a powerful witness in every generation. Consider the rogues gallery of sinners listed in 1 Corinthians 6:

  • The sexually immoral
  • Idolaters
  • Adulterers
  • Men who practice homosexuality
  • Thieves
  • The greedy
  • Drunkards
  • Revilers
  • Swindlers

Sounds like a rough neighborhood! But in fact, if you attach the word "former" or "repentant" in front of each, this was the Corinthian church directory. "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."(1 Corinthians 6:11)

Stanza 3:
I believe that this life with its great mysteries,
Surely someday will come to an end;
But faith will conquer the darkness and death
And will lead at last to my Friend

Despite the arguments of some futuristic scientists that death is an abnormality to be corrected,(Jarreau) the certainty of our demise remains one of the common threads that binds humanity together, regardless of race or creed. The Bible is blunt on this point: "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."(Hebrews 9:27) It will not do to pretend otherwise. Many spend their lives running from this reality; others embrace it and despair; but faith can confront it and say again, "I know Whom I have believed".

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:37-39)

About the music: This is a good example of the "commercial" Southern gospel style--by which I mean soloistic music that is written by and for professional performers. Consider, for example, that the melody covers the range of a tenth--an octave plus two steps. Many hymns have a range of only an octave; for comparison, the "Star-Spangled Banner", a notoriously difficult melody, has a range of a twelfth, or an octave plus four steps. Also, this melody covers the range extensively, starting low at the beginning of the verse, building up to the top of the range by the third phrase, and staying high throughout the refrain. This is musically effective, but it can be hard on the untrained singer (not to mention bass-voiced songleaders like myself).

None of which is intended as criticism; in fact, this song is a remarkably good example of a "commercial" song adapted for congregational worship. Not all commercial music is practical for congregational singing, especially a cappella congregational singing. The Gaither style, however, seems to translate well to this medium.

An interesting bit of quotation--intentional or otherwise--takes place at the end of the refrain. The expression "old rugged cross" is lifted of course from the famous gospel song of the same name; but the last four notes and chords are also very similar to the ending of the refrain of "Old rugged cross" (on the words "and ex- change it some- day for a crown). I tend to think it is a deliberate quotation, in a sense using the reference to the older hymn to identify with the traditional faith of past generations.


Collins, Ace. Turn your radio on: The Stories Behind Gospel Music's All-Time Greatest Songs. Zondervan, 1999.

Catholic Encyclopedia. Mount Calvary.

Garreau, Joel. The Invincible Man. Washington Post, 31 October 2007.

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