Monday, April 2, 2012

Hymns for Lent III: Ah, Holy Jesus

[NOTE: The third in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

Having contemplated Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, we now move on to Good Friday and the crucifixion itself with the hymn 'Ah, Holy Jesus', or as it is known in the original German, 'Herzliebster Jesu'.  What better way to start off Holy Week?

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That we to judge thee have in hate pretended? 
By foes derided, by thine own rejected
O most afflicted!
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? 
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! 
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded.  
For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, 
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life's oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
for my salvation.

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.
This hymn is a meditation sung to the crucified Christ.  The whole thing is addressed to Jesus on the cross.  The singer begins by acknowledging the holiness of Jesus, and and inquiring about what sin he could have committed to deserve his fate.  In fact, Jesus did not sin.  (I John 3:5; II Cor. 5:21) Even Pilate admitted that he could find no fault in this would-be Messiah.  (Luke 23:4)  Nonetheless, Christ was rejected by the very people he came to save, just as he predicted.  (Is. 53:3-6; Mark 8:31)

In the second verse, the singer takes upon himself the responsibility for Christ's death.  Rather than pointing fingers at the Jews or Judas, the singer grieves for his own sin that drove Christ to the cross.  (I Peter 2:21-25) He rightly identifies his sin as treason, for sinful man has rebelled against God.  (Lev. 26:40-42)  In this sense, all are Judas. (Matt. 26:14-16) All are Peter. (Matt. 26:69-75)  All are the soldiers wielding hammers and nails.  (Matt. 27:27-31)

The third verse focuses on the substitutionary nature of Christ's death.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.  (John 10:11)  The sinless son is slaughtered so the sinful servants may live.  (Matt. 21:33-39)  We violate God's law; he pays the penalty.  (Is. 53:5-6)  While we were oblivious to our dilemma, blithely sinning against our God at ever turn, he interceded and took the action required to reconcile us to himself.  (Rom. 5:6-8)

The fourth verse, while accurate, is a bit self-centric.  In one sense, it is true that Christ was made a man, died, and offered up his death as a sacrifice on man's behalf, but it is not true that man was the only motivation for these actions.  The purpose of his birth was death.  (Matt. 1:21)  He died for us.  (Rom. 5:8)  But the ultimate goal of the whole gospel story is God's glory.  (John 12:27-28; 17:1)  This was the motivating force behind the crucifixion, and it should be the motivating force in our lives as well.  (I Cor. 10:31)

As the fifth verse points out, our only response to this loving sacrifice on our behalf is gratitude and adoration.  Nothing we can do can ever 'pay God back' for the death of Christ.  We cannot dig ourselves out of the debt we owe.  The debt we could never pay was paid in full by Christ. (Matt 18:21-35) We deserved nothing more than hell itself.  (Rom. 6:23) Rather than dwelling on our rights or our merits--what we 'deserve'--we meditate on the mind-boggling love of God and his incomprehensible pity for wretches such as ourselves. (I John 4:9-10) He loved the unlovely and had mercy on the merciless.  The only reasonable response is humble loving gratitude.  Meditation on the Passion should never leads to despondency or misery.  As Frederick Buechner said, the cross may be bad news before it is good news, but it is most definitely good news--indeed, the best news there has ever been.

As we move into Holy Week, then, let us remember with gratitude the penalty Christ paid for our sins, and may we love Him all the more as a result.

(Honorable mention:  'O Christ, What Burdens Bowed Thy Head'.  'Death and the curse were in our cup / O Christ, 'twas full for Thee / But Thou hast drained the last dark drop / 'Tis empty now for me.')

In the next few entries, we'll continue to meditate on the events of Good Friday before moving on to the joyous celebration of Easter.

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