I love the old hymns. In fact, I first played the “old ones” in a United Methodist Church when I was seven. I’m 43 and the pastor of a congregation. When we don’t have a musician, which happens more often than not in the off season; I play the piano and preach. Thank you mom and dad for making me go to those lessons.
The old hymns, the ones we love to sing, are comforting. You know them without me having to list them. In the United Methodist Hymnal, you’ll find them throughout the book. They’re all of a certain age. Everyone, no matter how old they are, remembers them from childhood. Like the Gregorian Chan of the Middle Ages, “Standing on the Promises” and “Victory in Jesus” feel like they’ve been part of shared religious vocabulary for centuries.
I wonder, however, when was the last time we read some of the lyrics we sing. What happens we strip back the organ, the familiar chords, and consider the words? In this case, I’m thinking about “The Old Rugged Cross”. As I re-read these stanzas in musical isolation, I wondered: does our devotion to a personalized, decaying relic all in the hope of receiving a crown match to anything Jesus said, taught, or ultimately died for? To be honest, I’m thinking no.
Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have noted the irony of the Cross. What was a symbol of death and execution became a symbol life triumphant over death. Yet, as we all acknowledge, Good Friday and the Crucifixion are only part of the Resurrection equation. The cross is meaningless without the empty tomb. The cross points to the tomb. It is both a sign and a symbol. This isn’t a new or controversial observation.
The “Old Rugged Cross” presents a traditional message about the cross but it is as troubling as it is inspirational. In the second verse, where George Bennard writes, that the cross, “so despised by the world has a wondrous attraction for me.” What is a wondrous attraction to the cross? Jesus himself only spent three hours on the cross. It is not a place to linger. Salvation doesn’t begin on the cross; it’s merely one piece in the larger Christological puzzle. When we linger in the shadow of death and glorify mortality longer than we have to; we are doing a disservice to the reality of the resurrection. Why should we be fixated on an old rugged cross when Jesus has already moved on? Jesus is out of the tomb and we’re holding on to a dead piece of wood. We are obsessed with a tiny piece of real estate which Jesus long ago abandoned. Doesn’t this describe how we run most of our churches? Yes. We hold on to the wrong things while Jesus slips away.
From what I know of Jesus, he didn’t appear to be a “crown” guy. Herod, Pilate, and Caesar were into crowns. The magi were into royalty. Jesus was not into crowns. Yet, in the last line of the chorus, we’re clinging to the old rugged cross, laying down our trophies, so exchange them for a crown. That can’t be right. In fact, it’s wrong. Are we paying close attention to what we’re singing?
In the early 20th century, American Protestants believed that heaven was going to be a literal kingdom and we, God’s faithful servants, would be mini-monarchs. That’s a dumb idea not supported by anything Jesus said. Mr. “Blessed are the Poor” wasn’t handing out loaves fishes and crowns. If you’re holding onto the idea of Christian salvation because you think you’ll get fancy headwear (or political authority), you’ve got the wrong idea about Christianity.
Next time you sing one of the “old ones”, take a moment, and ask a question or two. Do these lyrics make theological sense? Does this match up with what Jesus said? And ask, why am I singing it? Are there other hymns that accurately describe what the church, as a whole, believes? If you’re singing the “Old Rugged Cross”, the answer is a definite yes.
Richard Lowell Bryant