We modern Christians have mixed feelings about singing “blood” songs. We understand Christ’s blood to be a necessary part of redemption, but we don’t want to think of it as… well, as blood. And songs like “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and “O the Blood of Jesus” may strike us more as titles of horror flicks than something we’d want to sing in church.
This doesn’t seem to be the case back when Isaac Watts penned the verses of “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed!” Watts seemed to have a very strong sense of his own sinfulness and the immense sacrifice Christ paid on his behalf—blood and all. Consider the language he chooses. He begins by calling himself a worm. While there is biblical precedent for using this term (Psalm 22:6, Job 25:6), it’s not one we commonly use today. In fact, after 300 years of contentedly singing about themselves as worms, some worshipers (including those using the grey Psalter Hymnal) have softened this phrase to “for sinners such as I.” Indeed, many hymnals leave this song out entirely, opting instead for Watts’ similarly shaped, but less graphic hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
We should learn not only from the voices of the global and ecumenical Church, but also from the voices of the past. We don’t have to adopt “blood and worm” language as our primary expression in worship—and we certainly want to balance these images with those of the loved child led by a resurrected Christ—but Watts’ lyrics are a powerful antidote to the tug of “moralistic therapeutic deism” and remind us once again that we are fallen creatures in need of redemption.
We will sing “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” each week during Lent this year. Think of it as a Lenten musical discipline of sorts. Like any Lenten discipline, there may be some gritting of the teeth, but I expect we will also experience the joy of deepening roots as we live into this hymn. We’ll sing it in a number of forms: with the traditional early American tune MARTYRDOM, in modern settings by Bob Kauflin and Bruce Benedict, and as a choral anthem by Deborah Governor. Each rendition will bring out new facets of this gem of a hymn. My prayer is that each week will also deepen our faith in the One who leads us to the cross.
Can’t tell a worm from a garden variety sinner? Contact Greg Scheer (email@example.com)
1 Alas! and did my Savior bleed!
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
2 Thy body slain sweet Jesus thine,
And bathed in its own blood,
While all exposed to wrath divine
The glorious Sufferer stood!
3 Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
4 Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When God the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.
5 Thus might I hide my blushing face,
While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
6 But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love we owe;
Here, Lord, I give my self away;
‘Tis all that I can do.