the wondrous cross

The Wondrous Cross

It was but a few weeks ago that, as every year, we left a dark Good Friday service and hastened toward our joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection. After all, “Sunday’s comin’!” There is no need to remain mired in Good Friday gloom.

In our Holy Week observances, we don’t even acknowledge Saturday — a day filled with confusion and despair for Christ’s closest friends.  We have a luxury the disciples did not; we know the next chapters of the story:

  • Christ will arise, winning a decisive victory over sin and death, defeating Satan’s vile design once and for all and destroying any claim that Jesus was merely a martyr to a failed cause.
  • Christ will ascend, demonstrating conclusively that His work on earth was done and completely accepted by the Father. He will take His rightful place at the Father’s right hand, now as our heavenly high priest and intercessor.
  • He will fulfill His promise to send another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, Who will move and empower Christ’s followers to establish the church.

In the light of the glorious truths ahead, we tend to give “short shrift” to Good Friday.

For many of us, myself included, the cross can become a bit dusty.

We embrace the doctrines of the cross. They are paramount to our salvation. But the emotions wrought by the cross we hold at arm’s length.

His Tears and Mine

Some years ago, the church I attended established communion as a major focus for the first Sunday of every month. No longer an obligatory postscript to the regular service, the communion service drew our attention in a sustained way to the cross of Christ. It was on such a Sunday that the words of Isaac Watts’s famous hymn first crushed me, filling my eyes and throat with tears, silencing my singing. Read this slowly.

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 death 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’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown? 

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

(Isaac Watts, 1707; public domain).

It was as if, for the first time, I truly saw Christ on the cross — the Prince of glory with thorns piercing His precious head, tears and blood streaking His battered face and running down His bruised and beaten body. The cross is a bloody manifestation of the horrific cost of our salvation. What could be more terrible than the pain and public humiliation Jesus suffered?

He Became Sin

Well, there was something more terrible. In my routine Bible reading one day, the following familiar verse jumped up and slapped me into a new and dreadful awareness. Again, tears stung my eyes.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

God made the spotless Lamb of God, holiness incarnate, TO BE SIN. Not just to bear sin but to BE sin. Never a sinner, yet in the mystery of God’s plan, somehow, sin itself. God hurled the awful force of His wrath upon that sin. And Jesus died, in real time and place, forsaken by His Father — so that you and I would not have to die, eternally forsaken by the Father.

The cross was not an arrangement in which Jesus benevolently agreed to die in my place, His holiness protecting Him from my sin, His omnipotence raising him unscathed from the dead, and very shortly, in a mere twinkling of heaven’s eye, His ascension seating Him comfortably at His Father’s right hand, mission accomplished.

No, the cross was agony. The night before His death, in tears Jesus reaffirmed to His Father His willingness to go through with their “before the foundation of the world” plan. Certainly, it was not anticipation of the physical ordeal that caused Jesus’s anguish in Gethsemane. It was the thought of becoming sin.

He was going to endure THAT. Alone. Being God, becoming the antithesis of God; being the Son of God, hearing no answer to His anguished cry. His Father turned His face away.

“Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?” And why? That we, you and I, His enemies from birth, might…what? Become the righteousness of God. What Jesus was, we become.

The “Wondrous” Cross

It is almost too much to contemplate, this mystery of the cross. That must be why Isaac Watts calls the cross “wondrous.” Can I let go of the “vain things” that blind me to that wonder? And what place has pride in light of Christ’s humiliation on my behalf?

How easily we forget. Jesus knew we would, didn’t He? So He gave us the sacrament of communion as a way to remember — His broken body, His spilled blood, the saturation of His soul with our guilt.

At communion may we remember not simply Jesus’s instructions instituting the sacrament, but the cross to which the sacrament points. To remember the cross in a superficial way is not difficult. May we remember it deeply enough that we see it as “wondrous.” May our hearts be ever tender to the cross.

Below are links to weighty, worshipful hymns of remembrance, each from a different century. As sung by Fernando Ortega, they communicate somber realities upon which we do well to meditate. Let our hearts be broken in wonder.

The Glory of God changes everything


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