Whatever happened to ‘The Old Rugged Cross?’

Published 5:34 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Has there ever been a title to a song that evoked such imagery as “The Old Rugged Cross?” I know it’s not historically true, but my mind conjures up images of roughly-hewn, hard and heavy beams of splintery wood. That’s the old and rugged part.

Then there is the purpose of those beams — to make a cross upon which someone would die. That is awful enough for two thieves getting what they deserved. It is hideous and shameful when it is used for a perfect man.

The song was written in the last century (1913) by George Bennard, a member of the Salvation Army, but later a Methodist pastor I’m proud to say! The song was immediately popular and, through the years, has found its way into just about every hymnal of Christian songs. Although it may be included in a majority of Christian songbooks, it is hardly sung anymore.

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Old timers like it more than younger folks. An elderly dad or mom might request “The Old Rugged Cross” at their funeral. I’ve sung it many times accompanied by my Guild D-45 flattop box guitar. I read a background article on the song and it said that the first time it was publicly sung was by a quintet with a single guitar.

Why isn’t it sung more these days? I guess it’s not as positive and upbeat as our churches want to hear these days. I understand, but we are missing one of the great underpinnings of our faith. Not all things are “hunky-dory” all the time.

We might find a good reason for not singing it in the first verse. The second line of that verse calls the old rugged cross “an emblem of suffering and shame.” Who wants to suffer anymore? And, certainly, there are hardly any reasons for shame these days. It is as if we have progressed, as a country and culture, past those experiences of suffering, pain, shame and guilt.

We haven’t, of course. We simply like to think we have and we will throw our trillions of dollars at any problem just so that we can say, “We’ll have none of that suffering and shame.” We don’t understand that the suffering and shame of humanity cannot be bought or sold with tax dollars.

One of these days we might even ask, “Whatever happened to the old, rugged cross? Has it been replaced; has its meaning been lost. Does no one remember the pain and the cost? Whatever happened to the old, rugged cross?”

That’s the chorus of a song that I have pondered for years. Some songs come easy; this one hasn’t. It has spent a long time just percolating in my spirit. Pray that I will finish it one day.

I can say that “The Old Rugged Cross,” as a song, is beautiful. As a destination for our Savior? Not so much, except for the fact of what it meant and what came after. Just knowing about Easter Sunday makes me appreciate that old, rugged cross. I hope you do, too.