This famous Lenten text was written by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683), an Anglican priest. The Anglican Church at this time sang only psalms, so it is most likely that Crossman intended his text to be read as poetry, not to be sung as a hymn. Crossman ministered successfully in the town of Sudbury, England, until 1662. During this year, the British government had declared that every minister sign a document declaring faith in the infallibility of the Book of Common Prayer (the primary prayer book of the Anglicans and Episcopals to this day.) Many clergy could not in good conscience sign this document, and they were expelled from the pulpit and from their homes and towns. It is about this time that such “dissenters” (known as “Puritans”) began to emigrate to America.
Crossman later recanted and became one of the King’s chaplains!
It would be a hymnological travesty to sing fewer than all seven stanzas of this hymn (although far worse hymnological travesties have been and are still committed against church music.) The hymn essentially briefly tells the entire story of the Christian faith. The first stanza personalizes the hymn and asks, “Who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?” We know that Christ was divine before becoming human as the prologue to John’s gospel relates, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The reader is introduced to the concept of incarnation, the idea that Christ became human (ie., the root carn- gives to English such a term as “carnal” and to other languages their word for “meat” or “flesh” [carne.]) The second stanza continues this incarnational idea that Christ came “from His blest throne salvation to bestow,” although “men made strange, and none the longed for Christ would know.” As our liturgy will soon reveal, the fickle praises of the Palm Sunday crowd would soon become, in the words of the third stanza, “Crucify!” This same humanity would save a murderer (Barabbas), but “The prince of life they slay.” Crossman’s sixth stanza asks, “What may I say? Heaven was His home but mine the tomb wherein He lay,” again personalizing what might have a tendency to become a theological abstraction.
This hymn presents law and gospel in a clearer manner than many hymns and songs these days. We cannot read/sing it and feel good about humanity and ourselves. It is easy to blame the short-sighted Jews of Jesus’ time for crucifying Him, but we know that our own sin warrants the same guilt. It is us who cry “crucify” each time we sin, whether knowingly and willingly or simply unaware. Yet, this hymn just as clearly presents the gospel. We know that it was “mine the tomb wherein He lay,” so that the grave no longer has power over us. We know that He “to suffering goes that He His foes from death might free.” This is the true gospel message! This is the crux of the Easter message which, of course, cannot be separated from our Lenten preparations.