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The Crimson Tide

By March 10, 2017 6 Comments

Metaphors and other descriptors, like men’s ties and women’s scarves, move in and out of style. No respectable preacher can say much about the church these days without dropping the word flourish. I’m not sure who introduced it, but if she’d patented it, she’d be well-heeled. And these days we face a ton of existential problems don’t you think? More, at least, than five years ago.

UnTrumpians, like me, find it difficult not to go all old-testament-prophet on our POTUS without using the word normalize to describe behavior we dassn’t do (as grandma would say). English 101 texts warn against such vapid nominalization, but not “normalizing Trump” is just too important a task to have to listen to schoolmarm propriety.

Nothing really changes much, however, in the little old church we attend quite regularly just up the road. Most of the hymns trot along in that late-19th century rollicking gait that makes the aesthete in me roll my eyes–like this one from last week’s liturgy:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Diction straight from a sawdust museum: “Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured” doesn’t seem as un-singable as unimaginable.

But my talking about it seems a little clinical without the music. If you so desire, listen in.

That first stanza, all about “the blood of the Lamb,” got me thinking how infrequently we press those old metaphors into service these days. The image of Christ’s blood “outpoured” seemed so old that it isn’t–blood, a river of it, from Christ’s side. That description, cliched as it may be, courts the unimaginable, doesn’t it? Try it–see if you can visualize all that blood without wincing.

The third stanza (not in the YouTube video, by the way) pushes even wider:

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide;
What can we do to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.

I had to remind myself what I was singing had nothing to do with Alabama football. “A crimson tide” is not just a spillway, it’s an entire sea of blood–not a bucket or a bathtub, which would be goosebump-ish enough–but a whole wide ocean. “Crimson tide” stopped me cold. Who can even see that? who would choose to?

As if that wasn’t enough for a single Sabbath, all that blood showed up once again in the hymn after the sermon:

For Jesus shed His precious blood
Rich blessings to bestow
Plunge now into the crimson flood
That washes white as snow.

This time it’s a flood, not the “crimson tide”; but the images are equally overpowering–a flood of blood. Almost nasty, isn’t it? I stood there in the pew, hymnbook in hand, and told myself what I was saying, what I was singing, was so old it was new: fountains of blood, rivers of it, a scarlet Nile, whole lakes and mighty oceans of blood flowing in scarlet from a place called “a skull.” It’s impossible to imagine.

Years ago, a little girl on a bike got hit by a car right in front of our house. The old woman driving couldn’t have been going twenty miles an hour, so it wasn’t the impact that made us call 911; we called because the girl had hit her head when she fell. Some first-aid manual taught me not to move a victim like that, so I stayed there beside her. She wasn’t exactly with the program, but when she lifted her head, I couldn’t help notice the pool of blood from her ear. That looked scary.

She’s fine today, probably a mom somewhere, worried about her own kids on bikes.

But that afternoon, maybe an hour after the accident, two old men–my age today probably–met right there out front, both of them our neighbors. No one asked them to drop by, but they did. The neighbor south brought a bucket, the neighbor north a broom.

They were there to clean up that little girl’s blood. I’d never thought of it.

I wondered then whether it wasn’t something of a ritual, those old bucks having determined it unseemly for that little girl’s blood, maybe six inches across, to pool up out there so public-like. They didn’t ask me if they could clean it up, but then I wasn’t the one to make the call. Their attention had nothing to do with property lines; it was about propriety and principle. It was blood, after all, human blood, and somehow the two of them determined that it deserved what honor they could give it by washing it away.

It just seemed to me then, as it does now, that their act in front of our house was sacred. They weren’t trying to teach their younger neighbor anything; they were simply taking care of what needs to be taken care of because we aren’t just a concoction of minerals. We’re something else. We bleed life. And when that happens, you just don’t let it out in the street.

That’s the story I remembered by way of words in old hymns I’d never really noticed a hundred times before. There I stood in a 140-year old church that’s dying, singing sawdust hymns that put me midstream in a crimson flood that washes white as snow; and what I remembered was a pool of it washed away in an act of love by two old neighbors.

A flood. A tide, a crimson tide. All that blood. Just think of it, if you can. Preposterous descriptors buried in that old music. Unimaginable, really. So much blood.

I suppose that’s the point: it is really unimaginable, isn’t it? Somehow, in that sea we all emerge incredibly bloody clean. Somehow. It’s mystery. It’s miracle. It’s life.

A crimson tide of bloody grace greater than all our sin. That’s the way that old hymn goes.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    How beautiful! As an organist, I used to disdain these “blood hymns”, as they are sometimes called. As I have aged, I have come to realize the richness of the fervent poetry and no longer cringe when playing or singing them. We are all blessed that the new hymnal has welcomed many of them back into the Reformed fold.

  • Simply beautiful. Thank you.

  • Emily R. Brink says:

    Thanks, Jim. I too am starting to be able once again to sing these old “blood” hymns, and your example of the two old neighbors was moving and powerful.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    My second time around on this one, Friday afternoon. Every Good Friday, we do a Bluegrass Passion service, and all of our songs are the old-timey gospel songs, and so we get lots of blood. I do that on purpose, lest these hymns never be sung any more. I agree that the fervent poetry is worth repeating every year.

    • Elaine Parny says:

      Hello, I was doing some research on the phrase “crimson tide” in context of Christianity and was happy to find your essay, except for the disdain I see expressed for “bloody” references in some of the old songs regarding the blood that Christ shed for the remission of all of our sins……since we are all sinners, it must take a lot of blood! And, I say that most reverentially and thankfully.

      Blood, in and of itself, usually indicates the harm to a human, usually. Interestingly, it also can indicate health & life. But, Our Lord’s blood, of a man that was totally innocent of sin, who said, stand back, I will die in your place, so that you may have access back to the Father-Creator of All, versus going into eternal destruction and separation from perfect Love, deserves our awe and adoration and indebtedness, as no other.

      As I understand the scriptures, in my ignorance, there is absolutely NO OTHER WAY, except to be washed by that very blood, to enter into an eternal relationship with Father God and all of eternity, our intended home

      A Child of God

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