Christopher Howse: Rock of Ages and the rebel pilgrims

Posted by Kendall Harmon

More importantly, for Toplady's verses, the water flowing from the rock was a type or foreshadowing of the water that flowed, together with blood, from the side of Christ when he was pierced by a spear as he hung on the cross.

Toplady and his congregation were equally aware of the water that flowed from the right side of the temple in the vision of Ezekiel (47:1). That verse is sung round the world at Eastertide (and has been set by great composers such as Victoria) during the Asperges, the ritual sprinkling of the people at the beginning of Mass. That is not a practice of which Toplady would have approved, although the biblical reference is the same.

And this is what is so strange about Toplady's devotion to the wounds of Christ, the real subject of his hymn. They (standing for Christ's one sacrifice in his suffering and death) have saving power. The hymn writer wants to "hide himself" in them - at face value a grisly desire. Yet it is one that medieval mystics expressed too - Julian of Norwich springs to mind.

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Posted February 24, 2008 at 8:35 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. CofS wrote:

I have found that the things that Protestants in this country in this age are “Against” or squeamish about or prejudiced against, are far from universal to Protestants in other places and times.

In India, as a small example, I found that many households of Protestant tradition had large renditions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Of course you wouldn’
t think there would be anything in that to object to, but I have not seen it in Protestan circles here.

February 24, 12:22 pm | [comment link]
2. Fr. Greg wrote:

Interestingly enough, this is also true in Southern Appalachia among the various stripes of Baptists who are ubiquitous there.  Who’d a thunk it?

February 24, 12:33 pm | [comment link]
3. CofS wrote:

Fr. Greg,

That is interesting.  To me the sacred heart speaks compellingly of Jesus’ compassion.  The streets of India and the villages of Appalachia are two of many places that compassion would be most apprecialted.

February 24, 2:52 pm | [comment link]
4. azusa wrote:

“And this is what is so strange about Toplady’s devotion to the wounds of Christ, the real subject of his hymn. They (standing for Christ’s one sacrifice in his suffering and death) have saving power. The hymn writer wants to “hide himself” in them - at face value a grisly desire. Yet it is one that medieval mystics expressed too - Julian of Norwich springs to mind.”

I’ve never read (or sung) the hymn as signifying ‘devotion’ to the actual wounds of Christ. The writer asks to hide himself in Christ (a thoroughly NT idea), not in his wounds. Of course, emphasis on ‘the blood’ is central to 18th century evangelical devotion:
“There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins
And sinners drenched beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.”
Not an image many would use today, but drawn from the book of Revelation.

February 24, 4:11 pm | [comment link]
5. physician without health wrote:

Rock of Ages is one of the most powerful hymns in all of Christendom; it, along with A Mighty Fortress are my top two.  The bottom line here is that we are powerless to completely atone for our sins; it took the brutal punishment of the Son of God to accomplish this for us.  The amazing nature of God’s grace comes forth powerfully in this hymn.  As Charles Wesley wrote:  Amazing love, how can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?!”

February 24, 6:48 pm | [comment link]
6. Fr. Greg wrote:

Good point, CofS.  This may also explain such images, along with crucifixes, in many Protestant African-American households.
On another note, I was surprised to learn that Toplady was a Calvinist.  This hymn is a favorite in Wesleyan circles and certainly speaks to Wesleyan theology:  “save from wrath and make me pure.”

February 24, 10:33 pm | [comment link]
7. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

Interesting, too, are the changes made in the lyrics…
http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/r/o/rockages.htm

“save from wrath and make me pure” just doesn’t fly with those whose God knows neither wrath nor impurity.

February 24, 10:44 pm | [comment link]
8. libraryjim wrote:

Dang, DWS,
You could have warned me that there was midi music on the site! I clicked on it and everyone at the circ desk jumped a mile! and then glared at me!

February 25, 11:50 am | [comment link]
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