Seeing the Old in a New Light: ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

Christ Crucified Diego Velazquez 1632
Christ Crucified, by Diego Velazquez, 1632

‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ certainly isn’t a new entry into the Christian repertoire. It was written in 1707 by the English Nonconformist preacher Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and has appeared in numerous hymnals since. I first encountered it more than a decade ago and know it by heart.

Although Watts penned six verses only four are commonly sung: Watts himself effectively scrapped one verse as he thought it watered down the overall impact. It is rich in scriptural references, particularly to the epistles of St. Paul. Consider, for example, Philippians 3:7-8

‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I might gain Christ.’ (Phil. 3:7-8, NIV)

Last Sunday at church, ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ was played as the offertory hymn. For those unfamiliar with the workings of the church service, the offering is when people give a donation of money for the upkeep of the church and ‘good works’ within the community and the wider world (at least, that’s the idea. There’s no point in denying that a number of unscrupulous church leaders have instead misappropriated these funds for their own purposes, but I won’t go there). It so happened that I was, quite unusually, the one passing the special bags in which the money is collected, and I brought them up to the priest as we sang the last 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.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the Cross of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’re such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

To the believer, the love of God made manifest in Christ is a profound and overwhelming thing, and it is precisely the profound and overwhelming nature of this love which means that all too often we forget just how profound and overwhelming it is. Like Ezekiel (Ezk. 1:28), we fall down, blinded; like Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13), we hide our eyes.

And then in a moment we are confronted once again with the full radiant power of this love, and overwhelmed once again by the magnitude of what it calls us to do and to be, because the only possible answer to such love, ‘so amazing, so divine’, is indeed an all-consuming love – heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27; c.f. Deuteronomy 6:5) – a love which demands ‘my soul, my life, my all.’

These were the thoughts which passed through my mind and the feelings which welled in my heart as I carried the offering up to the altar. And that’s a big thought to be faced with.

Have you ever found yourself struck anew by a fresh understanding of something which seemed old and familiar? Confronted, challenged, changed?

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