The first time I heard this hymn was as an organist-choirmaster in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1978. The choir was enthusiastic, at least, and one woman taught me the meaning of “whiskey tenor”. Not that she was drunk, but the color of her voice was, shall we say, distinctive, and it was how she described it. And yes, she sang the tenor line…
Then, I thought this hymn was sentimental and better suited to the sawdust trail than in the Roman Catholic church, but I needed the job. Recently, caught up in writing my systematic theology on the Nicene Creed, these words have come back to me. I addressed original sin in an earlier column. Now let’s talk about crucifixion.
- 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.
For people in the first-century Roman empire, the cross was certainly an “emblem of suffering and shame.” The condemned experienced prolonged agony, not only from the nails but from the slow asphyxiation as they attempted to alternate between holding themselves upright with their arms and pressing with their feet. Blood loss led to intense thirst. It could last for days.
In order to be able to do that to someone, the soldiers first spent some time beforehand with the condemned, to beat and degrade him or her. Dehumanizing the person you are going to execute still occurs. (Today, for instance, those who guard death row inmates do not participate in killing them, a task handed over to people the condemned does not know.) Then the Romans scourged the victim with a cat o’ nine tails whose tips included sharp objects to shred and rip flesh.
They were crucified naked. The stripping of Jesus is attested by all four gospels, even if only indirectly (the soldiers dividing his clothes — Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:23–25). Even today in the Middle East, public nudity is considered extremely humiliating, and forcibly stripping someone naked in public is certainly sexual abuse in any culture. The idea may be shocking to many since church art never displays a naked Christ on the cross, despite the fact that he was, like all those crucified.