When I Survey The Wondrous Cross
The fact that I cannot sing in worship this Lent has not stopped the words of Isaac Watts’ beloved masterpiece, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, from rattling about in my mind. Throughout this incredible hymn, Watts speaks powerfully of Christ’s atoning death. He draws us into the pathos of the Crucifixion, and he causes us to reflect on the somber majesty of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. At the same time, Watts also invites us to become part of what we see and to accept the implications of the Cross for our lives. He sees clearly – far more clearly than most modern Christians – that Jesus Christ’s death is not a tragedy: it is His glory, His exaltation, and His greatest exposition of the Father’s redeeming love. For this reason, Watts bids us to sing in the knowledge that Christ’s death cannot be contained by history: it must touch and transform each and every person who would claim Jesus Christ as their Lord.
Consider the opening verse:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
The Cross is a scandal. We find it a gruesome and embarrassing symbol. Yet, Watts calls us to contemplate the hard wood of the Cross, to see the wonder in its stark form. The scandal of the Cross works on us. It invites us into the depths of Divine love. It reminds us that Christian faith is a real religion for real people – people who cry and suffer and bleed and die. We embrace it all because God embraces it all. The God of heaven and earth is not afraid of our suffering, and He does not seek to escape our suffering. In and through Jesus Christ, the infinite and immortal God truly suffers and dies.
This is a wonder beyond all wonders. Christ is the Prince of Glory not because He rises above us, but because He comes to us and allows our pain to become His pain. Once we understand this, Watt’s second verse becomes our plea as well:
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
Here I cannot help but think of Christ’s encounter with the Devil in the wilderness. When Satan tempted Jesus by showing Him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant, Christ rebuffed him by insisting that we are to worship and serve God alone. Watts evidently took this spiritual counsel to heart. There is no ground in our lives, he insists, upon which we can stake our own claim. Our bodies and souls belong to the Lord. Our only boast is in the Cross of the One who died for us. In this way, Christ’s sacrifice makes our own surrender of the world’s vain things possible. To survey the wondrous Cross is to see differently. It is to view all of life in the light of the Kingdom. Watts captures this spiritual vision with piercing beauty when he writes:
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?
This third verse contains, at least for me, the most powerful lines in the hymn. Watts shifts effortlessly from self-reflection to Divine contemplation. These lines fill our minds with a powerful image of the suffering savior, and at the same time, they interpret the mysteries inherent in his agony. Two great rivers flow down from the Cross of Christ: sorrow and love. Sorrow, which acknowledges the sin and brokenness of the world, and love, which refuses to abandon the world to its own suffering, misery and death. These eternal truths mingle together in an offering beyond words. This Cross of sorrow and love proves limitless. Its power fills the whole universe. Its beams hold what we cannot hold and bear what we cannot bear. When Jesus Christ stretches out his arms and allows himself, no, gives himself, to be nailed to this Cross, even unbelievers cannot help but be moved by his sacrifice. Truly, all who dwell on the earth shall know: this is the lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world.
We may not be able to sing this Lent, but we can still survey the wondrous Cross. We can still invite the two great rivers of sorrow and love to wash over us and carry us into the heart of God. Isaac Watts knew well what we all too often forget: there is no time to wait. Christ’s call to us from the Cross is urgent and it is all-consuming, and that is because it is a call to die and rise with Him. We cannot survey the Cross from a distance. It beckons. It draws us forward. Our crucified Lord desires to take us where we cannot and shall not willingly go, and by grace, we must heed His call.
Isaac Watts, in the end, puts the matter perfectly:
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.