COLUMN: Two wonders I confess

Published 10:00 am Sunday, March 31, 2024

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I’ll bet you don’t know the name Elizabeth Clephane. She was born about a third of the way into the nineteenth century. Always known as frail, there is no evidence she ever married. Nor is there any sign of an accomplishment that would have made her well known within her lifetime.

The sheriff of Fife, a county near Edinburgh, Scotland, actually had three daughters and apparently raised them to care about others. One of them, Elizabeth, gained the nickname “Sunbeam” partly because of her disposition. Also, though, she was so benevolent that she once sold her horses and carriage to help the poor.

No, Sunbeam simply did her good acts for others and fiddled away writing the words to a few songs of faith. By the age of 38, she was gone all too suddenly.

Fact is, she had apparently lived with or near her parents for the entirety of her brief life and was buried with them. Her humble grave lies at St. Cuthbert’s churchyard in Edinburgh, the city of her birth. Her name is one of six engraved on a single headstone, along with her parents and other family members.

This is Holy Week, and I’ll bet right now you’re wondering why you should know about Elizabeth Clephane. So, let me tell you. This week, every year, we sing her best known hymn: “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”

That’s right. After she died, six of her hymns were published within the next five years.

Of these posthumous publications, this one was set to music by no less than two different composers. One of those tunes was named for her, Clephane. However, in usage, the Church has gravitated more toward the tune St. Christopher as we sing her lyrics.

The truth is, I have sung this hymn almost all my life. Some say that her words here are paradoxical, considering how positively she describes a horrible instrument of death. A place where our Lord’s death was carried out in the most violent way.

However, one biographer speculates that an additional fact about her life might shed some light on why she found the cross of Christ so welcoming a thought. There is a belief that of the hymns she wrote, this one was penned only a year before her untimely passing.

A woman who had lived in fragile health for her whole life was thought to be aware of her own impending death. As she considered Jesus’ gift of life eternal and the role his own death and resurrection played in that gift, the cross suddenly might have looked different. Like a shelter.

Rather than being about the mother of Jesus experiencing his death close by, this song might depict Elizabeth Clephane’s viewpoint. In stanza one, we might hear it as she who is taking a stand beneath the cross. She sees that same cross and its location as “…a mighty rock within a weary land.”

We sang this song again in our own Palm Sunday music this week. This time, I was struck by the power and beauty of what she confesses later in the song. What I should say is that her words here elicited a visceral reaction on my own part. What struck me this strongly?

The beauty and vulnerability of her words make clear that her lyrics here are genuine. Something has touched her “…smitten heart.” What could that be? There are two “wonders” that she confesses in the middle stanza.

First, there is the wonder of Jesus’ glorious love. This is so beautiful, compelling, comforting, and important that she sees it as a wonder. The depth and mystery of Jesus’ love has struck her. Our Lord at Easter was submitting himself to humanity’s verdict and treatment when he didn’t have to. Jesus’ love is overwhelming.

Second, she may feel unworthy as she sees her life drawing to a close. In her humility, she feels unworthy to receive the gift of Jesus’ wondrous love and grace. Unworthy of the eternal rest and hope we might find in him, and that to her is no longer hypothetical. Her faith at the time she wrote this hymn was about to become sight.

I hope you got to sing this hymn in your worship, as well. Or that you will. Maybe you’ll even do an Internet search for its lyrics. There, you’ll find verse three equally open and beautiful. As Easter approaches now, I confess these same powerful wonders afresh.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.