Seven Words from the Cross
Trinity’s Adult Choir
Soloists: Jennifer Aitken, soprano and Timothy Wilds, baritone
Violin: Mariya Potapova, Paul Stroebel Viola: Stephanie Quinn Cello: Franklin Keel
Piano: Vance Reese Reader: Danielle Teague
Pastor: Duane Davis Director: Anthony Moore
The Seven Last Words from the Cross are seven expressions of Jesus during his crucifixion, gathered from the four Gospels. These seven sayings have been widely used in Good Friday worship services since the 16th century and have set to music by many composers including, but not limited to: Lassus, Pergolesi, Haydn, Gounod, Franck, Dubois, Gubaidulina, and Macmillan.
As I was considering a new musical setting of our Lord’s dying words, I was drawn to another scriptural list of Jesus’ sayings from the beginning of his earthly ministry – the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are proclamations from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Each is a declaration of blessing, without a narrative context, that forms a major biblical theme. These blessings have a gospel logic that is contrary to earthly wisdom: the poor in spirit and the meek, not the strong and powerful will have the kingdom of God and inherit the earth.
When I began to contemplate the seven words and the beatitudes together, I noticed many similar themes. Jesus said that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be blessed, but on the cross he thirsts in agony as the only true righteous man. He promised that those who are merciful shall receive mercy, but he receives his Father’s wrath against our sin even as he implores his Father to forgive those crucifying him. For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I have used a chiastic structure for the music. A chiasm is a literary device in which a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as the ideas are “reflected” back in a passage. The term chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like our letter X. This structure is found often in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Old Testament as well as the music of J. S. Bach.
There is even a mirroring of Jesus’s relationship with his Father in the structure of the seven words. In one and seven Jesus addresses God as his Father (“Father, forgive them” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”) but in word four the relationship is broken and Jesus, forsaken on the cross, cries out to him as “my God.”
Jesus secures for us the very blessings and benefits he is denied on the cross.
Think on these things
This is an excellent, yet brief discussion among D. A. Carson, Matt Boswell and Keith Getty on the nature of the songs we sing in worship and their impact upon us. I particularly appreciate Keith's point about songs not merely being a vehicle for orthodox theology, but a work of poetry, beauty, and excellence. Theological precision is merely the starting point. The offerings of songs and lyrics must be honorable, lovely, and commendable as works of art.
Anthony is the Director of Worship and Communications at Arden Presbyterian Church in NC.
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