What comes to your mind when you think of Easter? Is your celebration of the Risen Christ on Resurrection Sunday shaped by the cosmic horrors of Good Friday and the Cross? How do you help yourself remember Jesus’ sufferings and death in a meaningful way?

A friend once challenged me to consider why we celebrate the hallmark annual events in the Christian calendar in light of the traditional Jewish festivals, which the ancient church of Israel were instructed by the Living God to commemorate – among which were the incredibly significant Passover and Day of Atonement.

The function of these Jewish festivals was to help the people of Israel remember the importance of a life sacrifice and atonement for sins. Take the Passover, for example: It marks Israel’s genesis and salvific birth, a picture of the new creation life to come for God’s nation, freed from the death-bound clutches of sinful slavery – and signified by the blood of a lamb.

“It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt when he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt , when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.” (Exodus 12:27)

Paul’s commentary on this event in Romans 3 paints a crystal-clear picture of the parallel to Jesus’ propitiatory death:

“Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” (Romans 3:24-25)

The Day of Atonement bore the magnificent picture of God’s people being granted absolute pardon and entry into His very holy presence, a promise of His high priest entering into the Holy of Holies and the very same god-man returning through the heavenly curtains to redeem His Church – signified by the death of undefiled animals.

The theme and song of the ancient church was always that of remembering death. God took great efforts to detail in his Levitical law the sacrifices to be made in these festivals. Why so much effort and gory detail? So that the spotlight shines on the crushing blow of sin and the life-giving forgiveness of atonement sacrifice.
If this was so, then death too, and the same, must be our theme and song as we recall Gethsemane, Golgotha and Calvary.

In recent years, two songs in particular have been very helpful for me in remembering Jesus’ death. The first is Gethsemane, a contemporary hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty along with Stuart Townend. These fellas are better known as the authors of the glorious, celebrated hymn In Christ Alone (yes, it’s a hymn!).

For me, the opening words are harrowingly poignant: To see the King of heaven fall/In anguish to His knees. That Christ the celebrated, blessed, divine king descended upon us and then descended beyond us – a kneeling, subdued picture. The Gettys and Townend implore us to prayerfully consider not only the humility of Jesus but the depth to which our dark sins and heavenly rebellion really draw us into. For to such depths did our dear Saviour bow into.

The choice, closing words – “All mingled in this poisoned cup/And yet He drank it all/The Savior drank it all” – also call to mind the unbearable, fiery anger of God, typically signified by Yahweh’s cup of wrath in the Old Testament:

Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.’” (Jeremiah 25:15); “O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering.” (Isaiah 51:17).

Knowing our beloved Savior drank this cup of wrath must embolden us to drink freely of his life-giving blood and pour our very lives out as a drink offering for God!

I appreciate the deep, unavoidable truths about God’s wrath and Jesus’ incarnation that Gethsemane forces me to wrestle with. It aids me in combating the temptation to self-obsessively make God’s judgment and salvation plan all about myself to the exclusion of His true purpose and glory.

Keith Getty explains the value of convicting lyrics well in an interview:

“They say that in every culture, the signs of the church on the slide are, first, that the church becomes decreasingly knowledgeable of God. Second, the church becomes increasingly obsessed with itself. Third, the church views every part of the spiritual walk for what they can get out of it — its therapeutic value. We see that happening today. So we want to write songs that address this shallowness by articulating the deep truths of the faith.”

The second song that has been immensely helpful in guiding my reflections on Christ crucified: Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed! – a classic by hymn writer Isaac Watts, the lyrical giant, the “Father of English Hymnody” as they call him. The man behind Joy to the World and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

The actual tune of the hymn as Watts sang it from 1707 is not known, but the tune we now know is one that carries a chirpier and bouncier tune, generally because of the mostly major chords arranged by Ralph F Hudson in 1885 – you can check out a great version of this “original”:

A contemporary rearrangement of the song by Bob Kauflin (director of Sovereign Grace Music) is the one that draws out the haunting reality and crucifying image of Calvary. 

The contemporary rendition may be found here (although if you search for the same song on Spotify and add in the term “Keswick” – a gospel convention in the UK – you’ll find the most beautiful and indelible arrangement of the modern version).

The lyrics are unbelievably rich and soul-stirringly emotive. The words of the first stanza allude to Psalm 22, David’s prophetic death poem of the Messiah King: “Would He devote that sacred head/For such a worm as I?” Surely, Watts was playing on those words in the Psalm to help his congregation know that while Christ appeared the worm on the Roman cross, it was really sinful man who deserved that condemnation!

We simply cannot mourn the death of Jesus as we do the loss of a close friend. The way Watts pens this hymn shoves us out of mere sentimental niceties and nonsense; he instead forces us to reckon with the consuming fire of God’s burning judgment – or as Paul put it above in Romans 3, the propitiation Jesus had to become in order to satisfy God’s holiness and righteous justice. “Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine/And bathed in its own blood/While the firm mark of wrath divine/His Soul in anguish stood.”

This hymn concludes the way any mighty gospel song should: With a prayerful, humble response of dedication and commitment. “But drops of grief can ne’er repay/The debt of love I owe/Here, Lord, I give my self away/’Tis all that I can do.” How alluringly inviting yet stunningly scary at the same time!

It is said that Fanny J Crosby – the hymnwriter and missionary who penned treasured songs including Blessed Assurance, All the Way My Saviour Leads Me and To God Be the Glory – found a precious peace from Christ in this special hymn. In the book Bright Talks on Favourite Hymns by J M K London, it recounts an incident where she heard Alas, and Did my Savior Bleed! in a revival meeting.

The year 1850 was a memorable one, for it was the year of her conversion and consecration to God’s service. Revival meetings were being held in a Methodist Church near by.

“Some of us,” Crosby writes, “went every evening, but although I sought peace, I could not find the joy I craved, until one evening — November 20, 1850 — I arose and went forward alone. After prayer the congregation began to sing the grand old consecration hymn of Dr Isaac Watts … and when they reached the third line of the last verse (“Here, Lord, I give my self away”), I surrendered myself to the Saviour, and my very soul was flooded with celestial light.

“I sprang to my feet, shouting ‘Hallelujah!'”

The songs we sing, built upon the sure foundation of God’s very Word, can be immeasurably helpful for our reflections on Jesus and His sacrifice. This Good Friday, may our fixation on the Saviour, who gave Himself away to sear a fire in our hearts, to give our lives away for the Gospel.