. . . one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side bringing a sudden flow of blood and water (John 19:34).
The name Thomas Steagald won’t be found in the indices of textbooks on Christian History. His fine volume Praying for Dear Life, while helpful and beautifully written, isn’t regarded as a devotional classic. Steagald is a Methodist pastor in Stanley, North Carolina where he lives out the vocation of a garden-variety pastor, and then writes about it with eloquence. In addition to pastoral duties, Steagald has at times in his ministry served as the church’s choir director. Reflecting on the singing of hymns in the congregation, Steagald writes
The scattered congregation sang some of the great hymns when their pastor asked for their favorites: “The Old Rugged Cross,” which Frederick Buechner says he learned to sing at bedtime and before he knew what a hymn was or what a cross was or why it was something to sing about at night. We sang “There is a Fountain filled with Blood.” My wife and daughter really do not like that song, though it is one of my favorites. I keep telling them it is a metaphor, a metaphor – but to no avail. We sang “It is Well with My Soul,” and I pledged that though “Satan should buffet and trials should come” to “let this blessed assurance control: That Christ has regarded my humble estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul.” That is not a metaphor (Steagald, Praying for Dear Life, 192).
Sometimes we allow meaning to evaporate from the cross under the heat of our words and thoughts about it. The way we seek to understand the cross with our minds, the way we speak of the cross with our words, the way we wear the cross around our necks or place it in our churches – all these conspire to make the cross a symbol, and little more than that. A symbol.
The language of metaphor – words that help us to see and understand by means of an implied comparison – this language surrounds the cross. But the cross is not a metaphor.
The “Fountain filled with blood” is poetry. We may not think it very good poetry, but is poetry nonetheless. The fountain of blood washes away “all our guilty stains.” It is an image that helps us get our minds around what happened on the cross.
But there is a reality that goes beyond imagery. Jesus “shed his own blood for my soul.” Simple straightforward language. This is not an image; this isn’t poetry. As Steagald says, “this is not a metaphor.”
It is one thing to say what the cross represents. It is something else to say what the cross actually does. How would you state the difference?
Gracious God, help us to see the cross as more than a symbol. Help our words to convey more than imagery and metaphor. Remind us that the cross is your way of changing lives and changing the world. Help us to know that change personally and directly, and empower us to tell the story of the cross so that others are changed too. Amen.