Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, as Christians everywhere entered into the annual act of remembrance that is known as Holy Week, I was singing with the choir at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, VA. The music was lovely, the choir very, very good, and the sermon meaningful, but what stuck with me through this week of preparation and searching and devotion was the offertory anthem we sang. It was not some famous work or some especially difficult piece — it was just a Hal Hopson arrangement of that most famous of famous hymn texts by Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The words were so familiar, but, instead of the traditional setting of those words to the hymn tune known as Hamburg (Lowell Mason, 1825, taken from Gregorian Chant), Hopson combined Watt’s very personal text with the tune of a different medieval plainchant, JESU DULCIS MEMORIA. The effect was haunting and brought out (at least for me) the tension between the love expressed in the event and my own human failure to live up to the commandment that event embodies — to love my neighbor as myself and to love my God as I would be loved, unto my very physical death.
Hopson includes all four traditional verses (Watts wrote five stanzas in 1707 and added a sixth in 1709, but one was bracketed, suggesting that it be left out when the hymn was used by the congregation and the 1709 version is rarely included) and makes a delightful step outside the framework of the plainchant on the words “Were the whole realm of nature mine/that were a present far too small/love so amazing, so divine,/demands my life, my all.” And for the finale, to emphasize the dichotomy involved in this day, this “Good” Friday, Hopson returns to the end of Watt’s third stanza with a quiet statement, an awe-filled statement: “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet/or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
The truth is that Isaac Watts did not write these words for Holy Week or specifically for Good Friday. In 1707, Watts created “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” as a simple communion hymn; it was his way to write a hymn text to accompany his sermon of the day when he did not know of one that carried the message he wished to convey. In our modern churches, however, where a mention of the “cross” is often considered conservative or something that might “frighten” members of the congregation, this hymn (whatever the tune) is often reserved for the days of the liturgical calendar in which a mention of the cross cannot be avoided.
The argument about whether not to sing in worship, and if to sing in worship, what to sing, is an old one, and Watts is famous not just for the texts he left to us but also because he convinced the church of his day that music was intended as a participatory form of worship, like prayer. “When I Survey” was one of what Watts called the “hymns of human composure,” texts designed to increase the singer’s understanding of the New Testament message and designed to evoke in the singer an emotional relationship with the story being told. This was a new idea in the worship of Watts’ day and an idea that is increasingly lost in our world of performance worship. Listening to music performed for us may be the way of our current cultural context, but the Biblical injunction is to “make a joyful noise to the Lord (Psalm 100),” an injunction that Watts took seriously in his belief that hymn singing was an act of formation and learning as well as an act of praise.
History aside, when we gather and sing this hymn together at a service remembering the events of this Good Friday, we speak to the very personal meaning of this day and, just as Watts hoped, we think about the meaning of these events in our own lives. It is no surprise that the text is written in the first person: “When I survey;” “My richest gain I count but loss;” “Demands my soul, my life, my all.” And, given that perspective, it is also no surprise that it is was adopted as a favorite hymn by the early evangelical movements of Jonathan Edwards in America and the Wesley brothers in England.
In the words of Watts, I am invited to stand at the foot of the cross and experience the meaning of the event. Watts does not draw us into the picture slowly — from the first stanza we see the magnificence of the gift and our failure to live up to the only command required of us. In the second stanza, we are reminded that worldly things do not matter; the only story to tell is that of the sacrifice that has been made for us.
It is, for me, the third and fourth stanzas that that take my breath away. In the third verse, Jesus was never more human, human in all the confusion and beauty carried by that word we use so often — incarnation:
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.
Sorrow and love, love and sorrow — all met in that moment, all met in us.
And finally, in the fourth verse, an all-too-human expression of the ways in which we feel so small, so unworthy, in the face of everything we see before us — in the face of our inability to offer such a gift in return, no matter what we do:
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.
In the end, Watts’ hymn is indeed about the lesson of Good Friday for me. Both, in their own way, are not only about the story before us, the walk to the cross, the suffering and the beauty of “sorrow and love flow(ing) mingled down.” Today is a day that is all about our identity and our formation as disciples. What will we choose this day, in response to this question that is offered over and over again? How will we each, in the face of the cross, answer the question, “Who are you anyway?“
Because today above all days, Jesus answered that question for us. And Isaac Watts gave us words with which to remember that answer: “Love so amazing, so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all.”