Sweeping through the gates of the new Jerusalem,
Washed in the blood of the Lamb.
THIS Salvation Army hymn, written more than 100 years ago, was once popular enough to be familiar to the fictional sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey (in Strong Poison, 1930). I would be surprised if many of today’s Christians have sung it.
It is one of a large class of hymns for which stirring music, designed for enthusiastic singing, triumphs over words that are theologically or aesthetically iffy. I can think of other church music that also falls short on grounds of quality, but which I enjoy all the same.
In Noël Coward’s Private Lives, Elliott put it snootily but accurately: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” The music of “Sweeping through the gates” might indeed make for enjoyable singing if we, like the characters in the novel, could shrug off our inhibitions. Certainly, the ideas in the words are extraordinarily potent (regardless of their quality). One day, they declare, we who stand “beside the chilly wave, Just on the borders of the silent grave, Shouting Jesus’s power to save” shall sweep (not amble, stroll, or process) through the gates of heaven, because we have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Washing in blood is a monumental paradox. Blood is notoriously difficult to wash away, either literally (Bio-tex stain remover, now unavailable in the UK, once claimed to do so), or metaphorically (ask Lady Macbeth). How does something that, of its nature, stains and discolours ever come to be associated with cleansing? The logic evades us. But the connection of blood with life (Leviticus 17.11), and the teaching of scripture, are both undeniable.
Washing in blood came to be especially associated with Christians who suffered for their faith to the point of martyrdom. But it still applies to all of us. Blood is powerful. It can surprise the most phlegmatic of us into visceral physical reactions when we are shocked by seeing it outside its proper sphere (inside, invisible). We are so used to blood in the context of the eucharist as to be desensitised to the command to drink it. But, on All Saints’ Sunday, Revelation 7.13-14 brings the blood of Christ insistently to mind.
Whatever the logic, blood washes away sin. It did so under the old covenant, and it goes on doing so under the new. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1.29, 36), is an icon of innocence, but a paradox, too, in that — full of life and promise — his blood is shed for the salvation of others. Perhaps that old hymn, which revolts good taste and evades musical quality control, expresses with conviction how it feels to be saved by Jesus precisely because of the lack of inhibition required to sing it. Proclaiming faith is generally a disinhibiting experience.
Christians are used to paradox. The Gospel Beatitudes (from the Latin word for “blessings”) include a several paradoxes. Uniquely among Jesus’s teachings, which commonly proceed by dialogue, discussion, or parable, they have a liturgical quality. We must see past the gloss of familiar rhythmic phrases to the underlying structure of thought.
The first three blessings are paradoxes of nature: that poverty, sorrow, and gentleness are all gifts from God. The fourth is a paradox of action: a striving against the lower instincts of human nature (and, perhaps, of morality over biology).
Blessings five, six, and seven are the opposite of paradoxes. Statements of reciprocity, they affirm balance and proportion (responses to divine mercy, purity, peace). The eighth blessing returns to paradox: “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” All eight are third-person statements: “Blessed are those who . . . ” So, the final Beatitude comes as a real shock: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” The impact is like that of Nathan denouncing David (2 Samuel 12.7), or the condemnation of Judah and Israel (Amos 2.4, 6). Now is the time to “rejoice and be glad”; for only now are “you” on the side of God’s prophets.
Washing with blood is paradoxical, but, then, so are the blessings that God gives us. When praying for blessings, we may get nothing that we have asked for, but we shall get everything that we need. That is God’s way of sweeping us through the gates of the new Jerusalem, washed in the blood of the Lamb.