My great-grandmother passed away when I was nine. Hers was the first funeral I remember attending. Any sadness I felt was mostly borrowed; I was too young to really grasp the situation, and she had been old and sick as long as I could remember. My memories of that day are few: my mother comforting her mother, my dad’s hand sitting heavy on the nape of my neck, and everyone singing the unfamiliar hymn “Rock of Ages”.
It’s an appropriate piece for a funeral. In the final verse we contemplate our mortality, our “fleeting breath” and the inevitable closing of our eyes in death. Indeed, when we at last rise to worlds unknown and behold our Lord and Savior on His throne, our dearest hope is that He will not turn us away. It’s a song about human inadequacy and the hope that we’ll be saved in spite of it.
When my brother turned eight and chose to be baptized a year or so later, he asked that “Rock of Ages” be one of the songs on the program. We thought it was a bizarre request—why wouldn’t he want a Primary song instead?–but my parents didn’t argue. And so it came to pass that we sang what to my young mind was a funeral dirge at my brother’s baptism.
Looking at the lyrics now, I feel bad for ever having questioned his choice. Here is the first verse:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Is this not a song about baptism and repentance? Of seeking the cleansing power of the atonement and having faith that it will make us whole?
The footnotes for this hymn reference the book of Moses, where God Himself explains better than I ever could what is meant by a “double cure”:
…Ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye may be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by water ye keep the commandment; by Spirit ye are justified, and by blood ye are sanctified. (Moses 6: 59-60, emphasis added)
Baptism by immersion is necessary, and along with it, the Gift of the Holy Ghost. But it is the atoning blood of Jesus Christ is what sanctifies us and makes us worthy of eternal life and immortal glory.
The second verse is a simple sermon on this doctrine. We cannot be righteous enough; all are sinners no matter how hard we try. We cannot feel enough remorse for our sin; sorrow does not satisfy the demands of justice. Even participating in saving ordinances such as baptism is not enough to earn us exaltation. We freely acknowledge our deficiency and dependency on the Savior. We plead with Him to have mercy on us.
Thou, O Lord, art the rock upon which we try to build our lives, the rock cleft for us in Gethsemane and on the cross. Whether we are children just trying to do what is right, nearing the end of a long and full life, or muddling along somewhere in the middle, “thou must save, and thou alone.”