Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beneath the Cross of Jesus

Praise for the Lord #80

Words: Elizabeth C. Clephane, c. 1869
Music: ST. CHRISTOPHER, Frederick C. Maker, 1881

Elizabeth Cecelia Clephane was born in Edinburgh in 1830, the daughter of the Sheriff of County Fife. She died at the untimely age of 39 in the town of Melrose on the Scottish-English border, and upon her death her hymns--all eight of them--were published under the title "Breathings on the Border" in the Family Illustrated magazine. The editor introduced them as follows:
These lines express the experiences, the hopes, and the longings of a young Christian lately released. Written on the very edge of this life, with the better land fully in the view of faith, they seem to us footsteps printed on the sands of Time, where these sands touch the ocean of Eternity. These footprints of one whom the Good Shepherd led through the wilderness into rest, may, with God's blessing, contribute to comfort and direct succeeding pilgrims.(Julian, 238ff.)
It is sobering to think of a life cut off so short, and leaving such a small handful of works behind; in fact, only two of Clephane's hymns have ever been sung much at all. But in these two she accomplished more, and touched more lives for good, than many people do in a full threescore and ten. Her other well-known hymn is "The Ninety and Nine," a song that in its day brought many thousands to their knees in repentance. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" is a thoughtful contemplation of the meaning of the cross in our lives, and has been a rewarding text to study.

Stanza 1:
Beneath the cross of Jesus,
I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land,
A home within the wilderness,
A rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat,
And the burden of the day.

Clephane uses an interesting constellation of metaphors for the cross: it is "shade," "home," "rest," "shelter," and "refuge." These images are made more certain by the phrase "a mighty rock within a weary land," probably referring to the miraculous provision of water during the Exodus, which Paul reveals was the work of Christ.(1 Corinthians 10:14) The second stanza refers to Jacob's journey through the wilderness and his camp at Bethel, where he unexpectedly (unexpectedly to Jacob, that is) encountered God.(Genesis 28)

The world outside this refuge is a "weary land," a "wilderness" of "burning . . . heat" and "burdens." It is not a home, but a "way" through which we are passing. Taken all together, I believe her intent was to portray this life as a dangerous journey, full of spiritual hardship and weariness, from which the cross is our surest refuge.

It should not be hard to prove the first point; just read Ecclesiastes and see if you do not find yourself nodding in agreement. Of the many profound passages in that treatise, perhaps this best sums up the point: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."(1:9) We will go on killing and mistreating each other; we will go on rushing toward early graves through worrying after material things that are just as perishable as ourselves; we will lift ourselves up in pride at our accomplishments, not realizing that a generation or two from now few if any will remember us accurately (if at all).

But in what way is the cross a "safe and happy shelter" by comparison? Wasn't it also a scene of pointless violence and tragedy? Violent and tragic, yes; pointless, no. Far from it; Paul says that "to us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Corinthians 1:18) It has the power to reconcile a sinful world to God,(Ephesians 2:16) putting away the sins made manifest by God's laws.(Colossians 2:14) Through it we can escape the weary futility of this world and have "peace by the blood of His cross."(Colossians 1:20)

Stanza 2:
O safe and happy shelter,
O refuge tried and sweet,
O trysting place where heaven's love
And heaven's justice meet!
As to the holy patriarch
That wondrous dream was giv'n,
So seems my Savior's cross to me,
A ladder up to heav'n.

Miss Clephane must have been thinking of Psalm 85:10-11,
Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
Righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
And righteousness looks down from the sky.
This passage comes from one of the Psalms of the Sons of Korah, an interesting coincidence (if you believe in such things). The Korahites were likely descended from the same Korah who led an ill-fated coup against Moses in Numbers 16; but though he and his followers met a dramatic and sudden end, Numbers 26:11 points out that "the sons of Korah did not die." Interesting indeed that the Psalms of the Sons of Korah so often touch on the need for reconciliation with God, and our hopelessness without Him.

The nature of the Atonement has called forth the best efforts of generations of theologians, and I see a good deal of truth in many of the theories put forth, as far as they go. But I suspect that at the bottom of it, we may not be capable of fully understanding the Atonement; we might have to be God to do so. What Scripture reveals plainly, however, we can rest upon with certainty. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever."(Deuteronomy 29:29)

All we who have reached a state of moral accountability have sinned. "Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?'"(Proverbs 20:9) Paul asserts flatly in Romans 3:23, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." The result of sin is death, "for the wages of sin is death."(Romans 6:23) It is not just a physical death, but something far worse--a spiritual death that separates us from God. Paul reminded the Christians in Ephesus, "you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked."(Ephesians 2:1-2) Though there are often other more visible consequences to sins, this spiritual death is the most serious result, because unless it is undone it will be eternal.

We are utterly without power to fix this problem on our own. "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."(Romans 3:20) Even the system of sin offerings God gave to the Israelites was without effect, "for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."(Hebrews 10:4) Nor will it be through "works done by us in righteousness,"(Titus 3:5) as though we can make up for sin through our own efforts. When it comes to our sins, we have no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up. And God's holiness cannot tolerate sin; "You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness."(Habakkuk 1:15)

But "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."(John 3:16) He is "not wishing that any should perish."(2 Peter 3:9) How does the infinitely just God fulfill the desire of His infinite love? "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) It was Jesus "whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins."(Romans 3:25) I don't claim to understand it fully, but I believe this much is clearly taught. It is on the cross that "heaven's love and heaven's justice meet." It is here that "righteousness and peace kiss each other."

Miss Clephane then turns to the somewhat odd yet thoroughly applicable story of Jacob's vision of the ladder reaching into heaven. We refer to it as "Jacob's ladder," but of course it was God's ladder. It reached from earth to heaven; it was revealed at a time and in a manner of God's choosing; and it completely changed Jacob's relationship to God. Jesus Himself referred to this incident, and connected it to His work of reconciliation: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."(John 1:51)

Like the ladder Jacob saw, the cross of Christ reached from a sinful earth to the Holy of Holies in the presence of God.(Hebrews 10:19) It was the instrument through which God chose "to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross."(Colossians 1:20) The distance to be crossed is not one of space, but is instead a far greater gulf--the distance between sinfulness and holiness. Outside of Christ, that divide is impossible to cross; and after this lifetime, during which God's grace is extended, that gulf will be fixed forever.(Luke 16:26) But if we obey His gospel now, through Christ's sacrifice we can cross over to God's grace:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.(Colossians 1:21-22)
Like the ladder Jacob saw, this access to God's grace was revealed according to God's plan and at His choosing. We cannot ascend to heaven;(John 3:13) in fact we know from the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) the inevitable result of man's attempts to raise himself to reach God. The cross was something only God could do for us, and that He did at His pleasure. Jesus could say what only God could say: "I am the way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me."(John 14:6)

And just as Jacob laid his head to rest with no thought of seeing such a vision, but said in the morning, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it,"(Genesis 28:16) human wisdom could never have conceived of how God would bring about salvation through Christ. Would anyone have imagined that an instrument of shame and torture would become the hope of humanity's salvation? But God did,
making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.(Ephesians 1:9-10)
Jacob, prior to his vision of the ladder, does not seem a particularly godly man. Even after this experience, he had a long way to go; but this event marked a change in his life, the point at which he understood that he had a personal relationship with God. At the cross our lives are forever changed; we are not finished with our journey, but we are on the right road, the only road, that leads us home.

Stanza 3:
Upon that cross of Jesus,
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart, with tears,
Two wonders I confess:
The wonders of His glorious love,
And my own worthlessness.

This stanza has always bothered me, and perhaps it has bothered you for the same reason. In fact I have often omitted it. Its emotional impact is terribly strong; but is what it says true, and fairly stated? The problem, of course, is the last line. Just how "worthless" are we to think ourselves?

We can certainly set aside for now the feel-good "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy of the 1970s, as well as the "self-esteem" dogma of later decades. As bad as it is to feel worthless, it is no answer to turn everything to morally relativistic goo and say that all shame is wrong. When people do something wrong, I should hope they do feel guilt about it; the fact that you can feel ashamed of your behavior means that you have within you the desire to become better than you have been.

There is sense of "worthiness" to which we are expected to attain: a relative appropriateness of behavior, if not perfection. Paul frequently adjures us to "walk in a manner worthy" of our calling,(Ephesians 4:1) of the gospel,(Philippians 1:27) and of the Lord Himself.(Colossians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:12) Jesus even said of some of the faithful Christians in Sardis, "they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy."(Revelation 3:4)

But what is the proper way to speak of our worth, when we take it out of the human sphere and contemplate the holiness of God? There is certainly another sense in which our worth has to be considered as negligible:
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.(Romans 3:12, cf. Psalm 14:1-3)

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.(Isaiah 64:6)
When we try to consider the infinite attributes of God, we fail. We read what is revealed in nature and in the Scriptures, we can discuss them, but probably can't really grasp them beyond a limited degree. The same is true of understanding the distance between our holiness and God's holiness. The great Restoration Movement preacher John W. McGarvey said,
I wonder if any of us has ever realized what it is to commit sin. I believe that I would esteem above every other gift that could be bestowed upon me as a preacher, the power to adequately conceive what sin is, and to adequately set it before the people. A number of times in my ministrations, I have prepared sermons designed to set forth the enormity of sin; but I have every time felt that I made a failure. I found, I thought, two causes of the failure: first, a want of realization in my own soul of the enormity of it; and second, inability to gather up such words and such figures of speech, as would, with anything like adequacy, set it forth before my hearers.(McGarvey, 16-17)
I think McGarvey has it exactly right; our resistance to the idea of moral "worthlessness" before God is partly due to our desire to have a jury of our peers, rather than the Judge who "shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth."(Psalm 96:3) On some level we must certainly recognize that we have no worthiness within us that could make God obligated to save us.

Yet at the same time, we can see that we have an inestimable worth, far beyond any that we could attribute to ourselves: "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."(Romans 5:8) If you ever doubt your worth, consider what God was willing to suffer to save you. He certainly thinks you are worth saving--He took on the suffering of the cross, an event ever-present to His infinite mind, to provide you a way back to Him.

So here I must part ways with Miss Clephane's language. Yes, I defend Isaac Watts's reference to me as a "worm" in "Alas! And did my Savior bleed?" But that is simply a declaration of my mortality and inferiority, as a human being, before the I AM. It is a state, also, that was dignified through being shared with us by Jesus Christ: "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people."(Psalm 22:6) To call myself worthless, however, except in relation to God's infinite worth, runs counter to the simple logic of Psalm 8:
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have set in place,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
And crowned him with glory and honor.(3-5)
The love and blessing of God is my dignity and worth.

Stanza 4:
I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross!

I once thought this stanza seemed to say that the author desires a cloistered life, wrapped up in the love of God and untouched by the world outside. There is always that tension within the Christian, because contact with the world outside of Christ is often trying and even tempting; but we have no right to withdraw from the world to which Jesus told us to bring the good news of His love.

As I learned more about Elizabeth Clephane's life, however, I think I judged her too quickly. She seems to have been a quiet, withdrawn person by nature, who overcame her shyness only with great effort. Though she never married and had children of her own, she was devoted to teaching the local children about the Bible. She was nicknamed "the Sunbeam" by her neighbors, who appreciated her pure and sunny disposition. She and her sisters, though not wealthy, were noted for their charitable works in the community. And her hymns, though few in number, have reached out across the world to touch the lives of untold numbers of followers of Christ.(Bingham) She had done what she could.(Mark 14:8)

I believe instead that Clephane was referring to Paul's language to the Philippians:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.(3:7-8)
And also his similar statement to the Galatians:
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.(6:14)
Paul was certainly not "checking out" from his duty to the world. Rather, he was indicating that all the other things of this life no longer held any sway over him, because his eyes were fixed exclusively on that one point in time when earth and heaven met on the cross of Christ.

About the music:

Frederick Charles Maker (1844-1927) was an organist and choir conductor in Bristol. He lived and worked through the height of the Victorian era and, like many an composer of the era, remained in its lingering post-Romantic echoes well into the twentieth century. Maker is known for several hymn tunes, the most popular of which are the one under discussion, and the very similar "REST," the well-known setting of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind."("Maker")

This is a favorite example of mine for demonstrating the characteristics of the Victorian hymn tune. It is wonderfully schmaltzy, and rich with examples of the melodic and harmonic language of the Romantic era of classical music.

  • On the last two beats of the first full measure ("cross of" in stanza 1), there is a fully diminished seventh: E-natural, G-natural, B-flat, D-flat. Though diminished 7th chords "normally" have a leading-tone function into the following chord (e.g. an Edim7 to F minor), this is what I jokingly call a "dysfunctional 7th," because it has no such relationship; in fact it holds two common tones with the chords on either side, and really seems just a chromatic decoration that does not affect the progress of the harmony. A more textbook name for this is a "common-tone diminished 7th." Very common in barbershop harmony as well!
  • From the tonic D-flat chord on "stand" (stanza 1) to the pickup chord of the next phrase ("The") is a chromatic 3rd relationship. The D-flat chord is followed by an F7, two chords that do not naturally exist in the same key. The note F is common between them and smooths over the change from A-flat to A-natural, which takes us outside the original D-flat key.
  • The second verse pair, (Stanza 1: "The shadow of a mighty Rock / Within a weary land") modulates quite smoothly to B-flat minor. On the final three chords of this section there is a really rich harmony and its resolution (Stanza 1: "wea- ry land"). The chord E-natural, G-flat, D-flat, B-flat is an "augmented 6th chord;" the augmented sixth is the E-natural to G-flat interval, here between the soprano and bass. With the D-flat added, it is a type specifically named the "German augmented 6th" (Don't ask, nobody knows why it is called that.) The augmented 6th is very dissonant and wants to resolve out to an octave, which it does on "land," resolving to F in each voice. I remember hearing this hymn as a kid and thinking, "Wow, that's a really funky harmony." It is. (Note to true music theory geeks: the composer avoided the usual parallel 5ths problem with the German A6 by dropping the D-flat out just before resolving.)
  • The F major chord at the end of the second verse pair ("land") is a half-cadence in the new key of B-flat minor, implying a return to B-flat; but the next chord is another chromatic 3rd relationship, shifting from F major to D-flat major.
  • The composer gets extra style points for the descending melody in the soprano during the preceding section, mirrored by the chromatically ascending bass line. This really builds the tension up to the augmented 6th chord and half cadence.
  • The melody has a couple of dramatic moments all by itself; the upward leap of a minor 6th beginning the second verse pair (1st stanza "The shad-"), and an even more extreme leap in the corresponding spot beginning the final pair of lines (1st stanza "From the burn-"). The latter is an upward leap of a tritone (diminished 4th), from G-flat to C; something most theory books would teach you not to do, or at least not without really knowing what you are doing. To make it even more intense, the C at the top of this leap is the leading tone of the key. In this case, the downward pull of the expected resolution of the tritone is stronger than the upward pull of the leading tone, but it is still an unusual moment in the melody and harmony.

Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1892. http://books.google.com/books?id=aBDpAAAAIAAJ

McGarvey, John W. "Sin and its Consequences." Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky. Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing, n.d., pp. 16-27.

Bingham, Jennie M. "The Ninety and Nine." The Cambrian, 15/6 (July 1895), 276ff.

"Frederick Charles Maker." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/a/k/maker_fc.htm

1 comment:

  1. I must disagree with your comments on "my own worthlessness" (some editors have change it to "my unworthiness," I assume for the same reasons you mention). I believe that the point of the song is not intrinsic value as the creation of God but the very points you make:

    "But what is the proper way to speak of our worth, when we take it out of the human sphere and contemplate the holiness of God? There is certainly another sense in which our worth has to be considered as negligible:

    All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.(Romans 3:12, cf. Psalm 14:1-3)

    We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.(Isaiah 64:6)"

    The parallel is in the final stanza, "My sinful self, my only shame; my glory all the cross." Because I have sinned and nothing that I can do will atone for it, when I compare myself to the perfect righteousness of God, I have no trouble confessing "my own worthlessness."