With three verses that begin with “upon the cross,” it’s not surprising that this hymn is mostly about the crucifixion and Jesus’ death. And, like most sacramental hymns, it’s not surprising that we sing not only about death, but also about the Savior’s (and our) eventual triumph over death.
We sing in the second verse that His death “unlocks the passageway into eternity.” That’s not strictly true if you define “eternity” as simply the hereafter–we’re all headed to the spirit world after we die whether there was an Atonement or not–but if you choose to understand it as eternal life, and specifically one like the Father’s, then we start to understand a little more clearly. It’s worth mentioning, as we did yesterday, that His sacrifice provides us not with a free ride back to the Father’s presence, but rather opens a path for us to walk back home. It’s up to us to take the steps necessary to travel that path.
The third verse phrases the flip side of death nicely, I think. We’re tempted to always think of death as a negative thing as mortals. Death separates us from each other, and we associate it with pain, both physical and emotional. We have an instinct rooted deep within us to avoid and fear death in order to survive. It’s only natural that we wouldn’t want to deal with death any more than we have to. And yet, the phrase “but, dying, brought new birth” helps us to look a little past those connotations. Just as death is another step we take toward this corruptible putting on incorruption, so too did the Savior’s death bring the whole human race one step closer to to putting on immortality. Through resurrection’s miracle, all the sons of earth can shout, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” His death, and more specifically His sacrifice on our behalf, allows us to be reborn spiritually. We can cast off the natural man and become saints through the cleansing power of His Atonement, provided we are willing to walk the path He has laid out for us as He taught during His life.
Those teachings, incidentally, would have been for nothing had He not been willing and able to make the ultimate sacrifice He did in the garden of Gethsemane and upon the cross of Calvary. The words He spoke were lovely. I could read the Sermon on the Mount for the rest of my life and be content. And yet those words, beautiful, inspiring, and poetic as they are, only gained meaning and force after the Atonement was completed. The first verse makes this plain:
Upon the cross of Calvary
They crucified our Lord
And sealed with blood the sacrifice
That sanctified his word.
We are taught that “where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.” The willingness to die for one’s belief lends credibility and force to those beliefs. For the Savior, not only that is the case, but in fact, had He not been willing to die, everything He taught would have been utterly false. Teachings such as “I am the resurrection and the life” become meaningless. Everything He taught gained meaning and significance as He fulfilled His mission on earth on Calvary. In so doing, those teachings became holy. His sacrifice sanctified His words.
When we sing this hymn, we are reminded of the suffering of our Lord, but also of the meaning and significance His death carries. It sanctified all of His teachings, and as we follow those teachings and adopt them into our lives, walking the “passageway into eternity” we sang about in the second verse, it sanctifies us, too. It makes us pure, more like Him, and able to walk that path back to life eternal.