Hymn Reflection: And Can It Be

Today begins a series of reflections on hymns and songs of worship. It’s fitting that I begin this series with my favorite hymn, Charles Wesley’s classic text “And Can It Be” set to Thomas Campbell’s rugged tune SAGINA. We sang this great hymn in corporate worship this past week at my church and my spirit was refreshed and encouraged.

Transcendence and Immanence

One of the great realities of our God is that he is both infinitely set apart from us and intimately near to us. God’s transcendence reminds us of God’s surpassing beauty, power, and holiness. It also communicates the frailty and fleeting nature of our humanity. In the midst of our weakness, God comes near to us to demonstrate his love, grace, and compassion. The ultimate manifestation of his immanence is the condescension and incarnation of Christ.

When we think of songs for worship, we often use broad generalities that belie our general viewpoint and conception of God. Generally we think that “traditional” hymns communicate the holiness of God and reverence due to him, typical of such hymns as “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “O Worship the King.” We associate contemporary forms with concepts of intimacy with God and his nearness, such as “Draw Me Close to You” or “Good Good Father.” The very best of our songs for worship marry these twin themes

In the case of “And Can It Be,” Wesley masterfully accomplishes this task in one text. The stanzas drip with the theological language of the atonement, the incarnation, justification, and glorification. The refrain gives voice to our response of adoration and praise, “Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?” The same God who is praised by the seraphs in heaven above condescends to take my place and allows me to call him “my God.”

Musical Settings

This text is theologically dense and requires a tune to carry it effectively. SAGINA is an angular tune that supports the lengthy poetic meter and refrain. This tune can be challenging for congregations to learn because of its leaps and length. Due to the progressive nature of the stanzas, it is critical that the congregation sing each of the stanzas.
One of the most effective arrangements I know of this text is by the California-based worship band Enfield. Their setting is an upbeat, acoustic-guitar led version with string quartet and mandolin in addition to the traditional rhythm section.

Lyrics

1 And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?

Refrain:
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

2 ’Tis mystery all! Th’Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more. [Refrain]

3 He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me. [Refrain]

4 Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee. [Refrain]

5 No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own. [Refrain]

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