Saturday, March 26, 2011

Blessed Redeemer

Praise for the Lord #75

Words: Avis B. Christiansen, 1920
Music: Harry Dixon Loes, 1920

Though Avis Marguerite Burgeson Christiansen (1895-1985) was a prolific songwriter, this is the only one of her hymns in Praise for the Lord, and a search of shows that it has been her most reprinted work. Her songs were prominent in the Tabernacle Hymns series, and her name is still well known in Southern gospel circles.

Gospel music in the 1920s was just beginning to emerge as a commercial style, fed by a convergence of technologies--the growth of radio, the affordable gramophone (an ancient kind of iPod), cheap mass-production music printing, and automobile transportation--that led to a constant demand for new music for revivals and singing conventions across the country. Unsurprisingly, not all of it was equally outstanding, and many were the mediocre writers who served up warmed-over Victorian greeting card verse.

Avis Christiansen was not one of them. The freshness and passion of her lyrics seem almost naive (in the best sense) today, as though she lived in a bubble, unaware of the writing going on around her. For example, the rhyme in the chorus on "bleeding ... pleading ... unheeding" must be the only instance in the entire hymnal. It is almost always a good idea to study the great examples of one's art; but there is also a wisdom in rejecting the echo chamber of one's contemporaries.

Stanza 1:
Up Calv'ry's mountain, one dreadful morn,
Walked Christ my Savior, weary and worn;
Facing for sinners death on the cross,
That He might save them from endless loss.

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
Photo by Berthold Werner.
No one knows for certain, after these many centuries, the route Jesus took from Pilate's court to Golgotha. We only know that on a certain day before the Passover, an innocent Man was sentenced to death by a disinterested Roman official, and was forced to carry His cross to His own execution. It was probably not the first time such a thing had happened in the streets of Jerusalem, and it was certainly not the last, in that bloody period of Roman occupation that ended a few decades later in a war that expelled the Jews from their homeland.
But it was the only time, in all the history of the world, past and future, that so much would hang in the balance. It was far more than the weight of a wooden beam on a back stripped raw by scourging--brutal and excruciating as that was. Isaiah prophesied of this day,

He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (53:6-8)

Small wonder that He was unable to carry it all the way. John 19:17 tells us that "He went out, bearing His own cross," but Matthew 27:32 reveals that at some point the Roman soldiers pressed a bystander into service--Simon of Cyrene--forcing him to carry the cross behind Jesus. The weight on those battered shoulders was enough without the wood. Peter--who for fear was not there to witness the scene himself--later echoed Isaiah 53, reflecting that, "He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed."(1 Peter 2:24)

Blessed Redeemer, precious Redeemer!
Seems now I see Him on Calvary's tree!
Wounded and bleeding, for sinners pleading--
Blind and unheeding, dying for me!

What if Jesus had, at the last, said no? I have seldom heard this question raised, and it seems almost blasphemous to suggest (though that is the farthest thing from my intention). But as He was fully, 100% as human as you and I, must it not have crossed His mind that He shouldn't have to do it? Wasn't this what He implied in Gethsemane when He said, "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me?"(Matthew 26:39) Of course He knew He had to do it--He had always known--but here the human being spoke in tones we all recognize, that pitiful voice of self-preservation that lives in all of us.

I believe He certainly could have rejected His mission, at any point in time. In Matthew 26:53 He told Peter that He could at once call twelve legions of angels to His rescue. (Considering what one angel did to the army of Assyria in Isaiah 37, what would twelve legions--easily more than 50,000--be like?) But as He told His disciples, "It must be so."(Matthew 26:54) He was "blind and unheeding" in the sense that He turned His great heart away from His own suffering to focus on those He came to save--even those who cursed Him and spit upon Him as He died for them.

Stanza 2:
"Father, forgive them!" thus did He pray,
E'en while His life-blood flowed fast away;
Praying for sinners while in such woe--
No one but Jesus ever loved so.


"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." The words of John 15:13 are frequently, and rightly, spoken in eulogy of those brave men and women of law enforcement, fire and rescue services, and the armed forces, whose act of putting on a uniform in effect says, "I will risk my life, and lose it if necessary, for the sake of my neighbors." Often it is for the sake of people they do not even know. But who among us will lay down his life for a declared enemy? In this as in all thing Jesus showed us the perfect example, living out His own words, "Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you; bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."(Luke 6:27-28)

Can we do it? Sometimes we rise to the occasion in the sense of Proverbs 25:21-22, "If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you." (Echoed by Paul in Romans 12:20.) This is a noble attitude, but it has an admitted aspect of "righteous revenge;" it would be possible for a person to take this correct action, yet from a holier-than-thou spirit, or from a desire to prove that one is not under the enemy's control. But to go the extra step and truly love the enemy is very difficult.

The only strategy I know to help me love an enemy is to remember that I am a sinner also, and have been before in a state of enmity toward my Lord. "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God,"(Romans 3:23) and thus I must always keep in mind Jesus' parable of the ungrateful and unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35. I dare not be unforgiving toward a fellow human being, for I am just as much a sinner in the eyes of God, and that fellow human being is just as treasured in His sight.

But think now of Jesus on the cross. Never before in human history could a man suffer and truly say, without a shadow of a doubt, "I do not deserve this." Never before could a man look at his fate and say with such perfect truth, "I should be treated better." Jesus did not have the spur of His own guiltiness of sin to humble Him in His approach to fellow human beings; He really was "holier than thou." But still He forgave people who thought the very worst of Him, and did the very worst to Him, that the wickedness of man was able to conceive.

Stanza 3:
O how I love Him, Savior and Friend!
How can my praises ever find end?
Through years unnumbered on heaven's shore,
My tongue shall praise Him forevermore.


God as a Friend is a concept that deserves contemplation. As Romans 1:20 so eloquently puts it, "His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." Throughout history people have looked at creation and come to that correct, if incomplete, understanding of God (of course, our understanding will always be incomplete). Native American story-tellers, for example, named Him the "Great Spirit" or "Sky Chief." They could see His power and understand their dependence on His blessings. They supposed, on the evidence, that He must be wise and good yet also just and stern.

Even God's chosen nation, the Israelites, did not understand Him much further. They showed much the same fear and bewilderment at Sinai, when "they stood far off, and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.'"(Exodus 20:18-19) It was only to Moses that God spoke, "as a man speaks to his friend."(Exodus 33:11) But then the Son of God came down and walked this earth with us, declaring, "Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father."(John 14:9) Through Him, "we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us."(1 John 4:16) And here, at last, is how the Son of God defined His relationship to us: "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."(John 15:15)

I cannot count any celebrities among my friends. I am completely unknown to the movers and shakers in Austin, Texas or in Washington, D.C. But I have one Friend whose kindness toward me is a continual source of privileges. I can reach Him any time of the day or night, and He is always glad to hear from me and ready to listen. He has never let me down, and He has never given up on me, even though I haven't always done the same for Him. Christian, you have Friends in high places!

About the music:

Harry Dixon Loes (1892-1965) was editor of several Sunday School collections and wrote a number of songs for adults, of which this is probably his best remembered tune. It was one of his songs, in fact, that inspired Avis Christiansen to take up hymnwriting.(Cyberhymnal)

Loes truly made his mark--if it was in fact his mark--with one children's song. His is the name often given as composer of the song "This little light of mine," supposedly written around 1920. I have been unable to track down any hard evidence of this, and in fact the earliest dated reference I can find to the song is in a Theodore Presser publication from 1937 titled Twelve negro spirituals for men's voices. Various versions of the song have been knocking around the United States for many decades, and though it may have gotten more mainstream attention through its association with the Civil Rights Movement, it has been a staple of Sunday School singing even longer.

Folk music--that is, music sung by non-professionals, and often learned by rote rather than by note--can sometimes take a composed, published song and transform it into several variants within a single generation. Of course it is equally possible that Loes simply wrote down one version of a traditional song he had heard, and was attributed authorship because it appeared under his editorship. The tune of "This little light" that I grew up with is suspiciously similar to "Worried man blues." Music is a wonderfully color-blind phenomenon, and can cross the sacred-secular boundary with equal ease!


"Avis Marguerite Burgeson Christiansen." Cyberhymnal.

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