Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet
Blood is the stuff of life.
One summer evening in high school, my friend tripped, smashed her head on the side walk, and slid on the gravel.
I remember being surprised by how bright the blood was as it poured out of her forehead with that gushing excess so typical of head wounds. For whatever reason, I’ve never been particularly squeamish when it comes to blood, so I held cloth to the wound and tried to comfort her while our other friend picked bits of gravel out of her forehead. In that moment, I realised that I'm not very accustomed to the sight of blood.
Here in the west, we never need to see blood, or anything very bodily for that matter. And if we do, it’s usually a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Blood is the sign of violence, of accident, of grave illness. But blood does not only indicate death. My sister was at my mother’s bedside when I was born. I’m told there was a great deal of blood, and of other things. But this was life blood, the pouring out of one human for the life of another. Every human being comes into the world this way, in a rush of blood and water.
Blood is the stuff of death, but it is more fundamentally the stuff of life.
I wonder sometimes if our total blindness to blood and bodies has sometimes made it difficult for us to comprehend and embrace the beautiful, radical word of Jesus, describing the power of his death.
In one of the earliest Christian manuscripts called the Octavius Dialogues (197 C.E.), a pagan philosopher accuses Christians of being cannibals. “At your meetings you eat children!” says the aghast Caecilius Natalis says to his friend Octavius Januarius. Octavius’s response is hardly comforting “Oh no! We do not eat the bodies of our children, we eat the body of Christ our Lord.”
At heart of the Gospel is this strange and wonderful reality: Christ’s blood poured out for us on the cross. This image may seem distant and strange to us in our cynical, modern world. And so this week, I wanted to dwell upon it, explore it in scripture, and see it through the eyes of artists.
It feels fitting to dwell on the blood of Christ as we draw close to the final days of Holy Week, in which we remember Christ’s death and celebrate his resurrection. I hope listening to this podcast will encourage you as much as preparing it encouraged me.
listen in at the link above and follow along in the show notes below
Visual — The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
At the heart of the gospel are events: the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. These events were not mere intellectual realisations, or moments of spiritual enlightenment, but things that happened in the course of history. It involved earth, time, and blood.
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
What does this mean for us? That what is offered to us in Jesus is not merely a doctrine to believe, but an event to believe in. Something which has happened or not. Something which has changed everything.
About the artist…
Michelangelo Merisi da Carravagio
Carravagio is one of the most well known painters of history. His paintings are striking, vivid, and realis tic. His subjects are almost never posed, and are almost always in the midst of movement, struggle, or tension. He used a technique called Tenebrism, which plays with dramatic uses of light and shadow to highlight the important parts of the painting.
2. Literary — Dream of the Rood
Most likely composed in the eighth century, The Dream of the Rood is an Old English poem describing a vision in which the Cross (the Rood) comes to life and remembers the night of the crucifixion. It is an excellent example of the transition from Celtic Paganism to Christianity, as the poet gazes on Christ the Hero who, unlike the Pagan Gods, allows himself to be defeated for the sake of humankind. Throughout the text, the poet juxtaposes the way that he is "sin soaked” with the way the cross is “blood soaked.” The cross comes to represent the absorption of his sins through Christ’s sacrifice, and Christ’s triumph over death through his resurrection.
You can listen to it in its original old English on the video below (I highly recommend giving it a listen!)
And you can read the Modern English translation here…
3. Musical — Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryars
What does the blood of Christ accomplish?
In the 15th century (around the time of the Reformation) many people were questioning just what the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice was. So they made up a word “Atonement,” or more literally “at-one-ment.” With this word theologians began to ask “How did Jesus’ death make us at-one-with God?” And ever since, many theories have been proposed. To name a few…
Theories of Atonement:
What does scripture say about the blood of Christ?
Bought us (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 1:18-19)
Reconcile all things to Christ (Colossians 1:20)
Redemption and forgiveness (also debt language Ephesians 1:7)
Cleanses our conscience (Hebrews 9:14, Hebrews 9:22)
Purifies (1 John 1:7)
Makes a way for us into the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 10:19)
Makes atonement (Leviticus 17:11, Romans 3:24-25)
Frees us from sin (Revelation 1:5)
Washes us (Revelation 7:14)
Triumphed (Revelation 12:11)
Justified (Romans 5:9)
It seems that each theory of atonement is represented in scripture. Christ’s blood does all these things and more. We are not expected to have a perfect theological understanding of what Christ accomplished, but rather to rest completely in its fullness and sufficiency.
we do not need a perfect theological understanding of what was accomplished through Christ, but a perfect trust in its saving power.
One of the most beautiful examples of this simple confession of trust in the blood of Jesus can be found in Gavin Bryar’s “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” Bryars wrote the piece to honor the simple song of a homeless man. He describes the history behind the song in the following passage:
“In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.
When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way [in the notes for the 1993 recording on Point, Bryars wrote that while the singer's pitch was quite accurate, his sense of tempo was irregular]. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.
I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man's nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism."
you can listen to the song here…
For me personally, this song is an embodiment of how God hears our simple confessions of faith, how he uplifts them with grace and makes them sufficient, beautiful, even glorious.
This is the attitude I want to bring with me into Holy Week. Not trying to generate holy emotions, or believe hard enough to justify myself, but to rest fully into the blood that has never failed me yet. And I pray the same for you.
this volume contains Dream of the Rood.
A reminder to my Patreon supporters…
I recently posted a Lenten podcast with Boze Herrington, and tomorrow I will be posting a Holy Week playlist with a guide for the lyrics and some scriptures for you to meditate on. Make sure to head over there and check it out. I hope it is a gift to you this Holy Week.