Passiontide doesn’t start, technically, until the 5th Sunday in Lent, commonly called Passion Sunday, but we’re going to look at a passiontide hymn today.
Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow,
Where the blood of Christ was shed,
Perfect man on thee was tortured,
Perfect God on thee has bled.
This is a phenomenally theological opening for a piece of music. The mystery of the incarnation is explored, wherein we see Jesus as fully God and fully man. The cross, particularly, is his place of suffering and sorrow. One may wish to say that Jesus technically suffered only with respect to his human nature, but the hypostatic union (or the perfect conjoining of divinity and humanity in his singular person) is such that all the experiences of Jesus, be they human or divine, are fully shared in both natures. Thus we are perfectly right in saying that God bled on the Cross.
Here the King of all the ages,
Throned in light ‘ere worlds could be,
Robed in mortal flesh, is dying,
Crucified by sin for me.
The scope of that first scene on the cross is widened massively in both directions through time. First it points backwards into eternity past, wherein we see the eternal reign of God and the sharing in power and light that the Son has always had with the Father. And then it points forward from the cross to you and me; we are recipients of the grace of that death. He died for the sins of real people, not just for some abstract cause, however noble.
O mysterious condescending!
O abandonment sublime!
Very God himself is bearing
All the sufferings of time.
This third stanza just takes a moment to reflect in wonder on what has thus far been said. After all, if Jesus was just God and not man, such suffering would be abstract, meaningless, even a mockery of real human suffering. And if Jesus was only man and not God, the gravity of his condescension and abandonment of divine rights would be nullified. The cross is only significant because the God-Man himself died there.
Evermore, for human failure,
By his passion we can plead;
God has taken mortal anguish;
Surely he will know our need.
Now we get a more explicit application, or lesson, from the theological assertions and emotional outpouring of this hymn. Because Christ has suffered and died specifically for the sins of the whole world, we can plead for the forgiveness of all our sins based squarely and solely upon that death. Not only can we be sure it is a valid and sufficient sacrifice for our sins (because Jesus is God), but we can also be sure that God is sympathetic to our plight (because Jesus is man).
Once the Lord of brilliant seraphs
Winged with love to do his will,
Now the scorn of all his creatures,
And the aim of ev’ry ill.
Up in heav’n, sublimest glory
Circled round him from the first,
But the earth finds none to serve him,
None to quench his raging thirst.
This is an unusual turn for a hymn. Normally the “application” verse that turns to the self is the last one. And four verses is a pretty standard length, at that. But instead we get these 5th and 6th verses after, in which we meditate further on the glory of Christ and his undeserved death. Both of these stanzas contrast the eternal glory he enjoys in heaven with the scorn and abuse he received on earth.
The hymn ends with a verbatim repeat of verse 1. The structure of the 7 stanzas are thus somewhat chiastic:
1: Cross & hypostatic union
– 2 & 3: meditations on the mystery of Christ’s two natures
– – 4: Application
– 5 & 6: meditations on how Christ is treated in these two realms
7: Cross & hypostatic union