My emotions around the images and stories we link to Good Friday are complicated at best. That is why over and over again, words are not sufficient for me: I must turn to music. And while the Isaac Watts hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” speaks to the complex dance between sorry and love that is our human response to the life of Jesus, in particular the events at the end of his incarnated life, it is Johann Heerman’s Herzliebster Jesu ( 1630) that speaks to the incredible guilt we can feel in our human failure to see the living God before us, each and every day.
We know Heerman’s fifteen stanza hymn through a very free translation by Robert Bridges in 1897. While Bridge’s version maintains the feel and the intent of Heerman’s work, it really should be treated as a separate work. Bridge removed the graphic imagery of the death on the cross and replaced it with words of sorrow and guilt that we know today. The meaning of the English text captures the essence of the German original and we have retained the original hymn tune composed by Johann Crüger around 1620 (a tune so powerful in German culture that it was used by Bach in both the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions), a tune that uses all the power of music to convey the slow, painful walk to the place of crucifixion.
In the first two stanzas, we, the singers of the text, stand with Peter: “ Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times (John 13:37-38 NRSV).” I think often about the crushing anguish that Peter must have felt when that prophecy became an actuality. He loved Jesus; in the upper room that night the idea that he could have denied his friend must have seemed a great impossibility. And Heerman captures that anguish in graphic, simple words: “Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee! I crucified Thee.”
The simple answer to the question, “why did Christ suffer” — because we denied him, because we failed to live into the covenant established between us and our God. So much of the story of Good Friday, so many of the emotions in that story, are the human ones that we most fear: abandonment, betrayal, and failure. And yet, the whole point of the walk alongside Jesus during this week of remembrance is to experience all that we can, to acknowledge our darkness as well as our light — for these are the qualities that make us human. And, it is in our full realization of that humanity that we come closest to our God, because then and only then can we truly experience the vulnerability and the fragility that comes with the true and beautiful love expressed by the gift offered to us over and over again through the sacrifice of this night.
You see, even in this dark, dark hymn, there is hope. Stanzas three and four describe the gift and the sacrifice offered once again through this new covenant: “The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered/For our atonement, while he nothing heedeth/God intercedeth.”
“God intercedeth.” Again. Despite our failings, despite our unwillingness to see the gift before us. God intercedes once again.
And finally, in the last of Bridges’ verses, hope gives way to gratitude. Jesus suffered because of us; it is a debt that we cannot repay. And God does not expect payment. All that is asked of us is that which Jesus commands in John 13:38 — that we remember his example and that we do as he showed us in that example; simply put, that we live into the love we have been given and think on that, not on what we need or think that we deserve:
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
Whether you hold a belief that Jesus literally died for our sins or whether you believe that Jesus walked this dangerous, incarnated human path to show us the way of love, that ultimate power that overcomes sin and death, this hymn reminds us all that the gift was great, that it offered over and over again in the face of our own guilt and failure, and that ultimately, love does indeed conquer all.
Do not be afraid of the dark tonight, for, as the psalmist promises,
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5)