Fourth Holy Week address at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suff’ring and shame
and I love that old cross where the dearest and best
for a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross
and exchange it some day for a crown.
O, the old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary.
In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
a wondrous beauty I see;
for ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died
to pardon and sanctify me.
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true,
its shame and reproach gladly bear;
then he’ll call me some day to my home far away,
where his glory forever I’ll share.
“we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles .” 1 Corinthians 1:23
In 1913, the Reverend George Bennard, an American Methodist minister, was pondering a problem that greatly exercised his mind. His thoughts went back repeatedly Christ’s Passion on the cross. This, believed Bennard, was the very heart of the gospel. The cross he pictured wasn’tmade from precious metal, or marble or polished wood. It was rough and crude and ugly and was stained with blood and gore.
Bennard was troubled by the ornate, artistic crosses that featured in countless churches and cathedrals.He later wrote, “I saw the Christ of the Cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form and act out the meaning of redemption.”
Bennard searched for words with which to express his vision.He wrote a tune, but the only words that would come to him were “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross.” For weeks he searched for words that would articulate what it was he wanted to say.
Bennard was a Methodist evangelist and was due to preach at series of meetings in New York. As he tried to gather his thoughts as to what he was to say, he found himself focusing on the cross.This time the words for which he was searching came to him, “I sat down and immediately was able to rewrite the stanzas of the song without so much as one word failing to fall into place. I called in my wife, took out my guitar, and sang the completed song to her. She was thrilled!”
Bennard’s song immediately became hugely popular around the world, but has always been regarded with suspicion in certain circles.Published in 1913, it took 87 years to find a place in the Church of Ireland hymnbook, first making the ranks of our officially approved hymns when the current Church Hymnal was published in 2000.In many places, it would still not be sung.I have heard people object to the words, I have heard people object to the music, but I suspect what causes the greatest problem for some is the theology of the hymn.
“The Old Rugged Cross” is about a symbol and an event that is not respectable, it’s not nice; in fact, when we think about it, it’s scandalous and it’s horrible.This is the very point that Saint Paul was trying to make when he wrote to the Christians at Corinth, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles .”
The word we translate as ‘stumbling block’ also translates as ‘scandal’. Christians in the first centuries were not troubled by being scandalous. They were on the edge of society.When they were excluded from the Jewish synagogues near the end of the First Century, they became a radical and underground group.They faced a series of persecutions because of their refusal to deny Jesus, but the Christian Gospel was so strong that no persecution was ever going to be successful.
By the time of the emperor Constantine at the beginning of the Fourth Century, Christianity was well-established. Constantine’s conversion in 313 AD and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was a recognition of the reality that already existed.
The Anabaptist writer Stuart Murray-Williams suggests that a subtle but very important shift took place at the time of Constantine, the Cross is superseded by the Chi-Rho monogram as a symbol of the faith. Christianity is now the religion of the powerful and the respectable.They do not wish to be reminded of the scandalous roots of their faith.
By the time of the Crusades, the Cross had become not an emblem of suffering and shame, but of dominance and power; to Moslems in the Holy Land it was a symbol of aggression and merciless violence.
Christians forgot the roots of their faith; they forgot the Jesus who was an outcast and a reject and whose death was a scandal; they forgot the faith that Saint Paul proclaimed that was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.
Christendom became the order of things, Church and state seamlessly together.Even when the Reformation took place in Europe, a Catholic Christendom was simply replaced by a Protestant Christendom. The Church was about power and influence and respectability, it was not about a Galilean carpenter hanging on a Cross. We have continued in that vein, being respectable and accommodating ourselves to the powers of the state in order that we retain our influence.
It was the very heavyweight German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who wrote in “The Crucified God” back in 1974, “’The old rugged cross’ contradicts the old and the new triumphal theology which we produce in the churches in order to keep pace with the transformations of an activistic and rapidly changing society.” Moltmann is saying that we should not be constantly trying to accommodate ourselves to the world, instead we should be true to Jesus as he was. Perhaps Moltmann wouldn’t have put it in such words, but we should ‘cling to the old rugged cross’.
Outside of evangelical circles, (and sometimes inside them!) we have become embarrassed at the Cross. We prefer softer images for our faith, we are uncomfortable with an emblem of suffering and shame, but George Bennard says he will cherish it. Why cherish such a hideous symbol?Because it tells of the full extent of God’s love for us.Whatever language we might use to theologise those awful hours in Jerusalem, the Cross brings us back to the physical reality of what Jesus endured for us.
Bennard speaks of the Cross being despised by the world; a world, we need to acknowledge, that includes the Church. A Church that was fully committed to the Jesus who dragged his Cross to Calvary would be very different from the Church we know.It is hard to imagine that Jesus would recognize much that goes on in his name.The Cross is very troubling for the Church. The Cross is ‘I’ crossed out; it contradicts all ambition and hierarchy and power and influence—no wonder it is not liked.
I would have found the idea of the Cross possessing a ‘wondrous beauty’ as troublesome, but when I was working in the country in the North I discovered that their use of the word ‘wonderful’ was very different from mine.I always thought ‘wonderful’ and ‘wondrous’ meant very good, positive, inspiring things; the east Down use of ‘wonderful’ meant ‘mysterious’ and causing one to wonder about things.I think if we see Bennard saying that the Cross inspires a sense of mystery and awe-filled, rapt attention, then it makes much more sense than any notion that it is pleasant to look at.
Being true to the Cross means remembering Jesus as he was, it means embracing a faith that is a stumbling-block to some people and plain foolishness to others.Shame and reproach aren’t things we actively seek, they come as part of the package in following a man who was despised and rejected.”If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”, says Jesus. He doesn’t offer an easy option for those who don’t like the way of the cross.
“The Old Rugged Cross” is a reminder and a call of what our faith is about and where it should lead us.
“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles .”