Listen: “I Lay My Sins on Jesus.” Words by Horatius Bonar, 1843. Music by Justin Ruddy, 2010. Performed by Castle Island Hymns (featuring Kevin Burtram), 2010.
The hymn “I Lay My Sins on Jesus” by Horatius Bonar draws together several different metaphors and roles of Jesus: Jesus as sin bearer, scapegoat; Jesus as Paschal lamb; Jesus as cleansing agent; Jesus as healer, redeemer, liberator, co-sufferer. Underlying them all is the notion of transfer, cost—we bring our burden to Jesus, and to free us from it, he takes it upon himself. Whatever it is that’s weighing us down—sin, guilt, yearnings, sickness, grief, anxiety—we are invited to pass it on to him who alone can bear it perfectly.
Though the text is a bit sprawling (Bonar later apologized for it, admitting it to be “not good poetry”), I appreciate what the musicians at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, known collectively as Castle Island Hymns, saw in it. Justin Ruddy’s retuning of this Victorian hymn, and especially the instrumentation, evokes a sense of lightness, of liftedness. Spirited guitar plucking sets the tone that is sustained throughout, which the piano, at first trudging, is lifted up into by the strings.
For visual complements to this piece, I chose first Jyoti Sahi’s Lamb and the Tree, which shows a lamb cut open, letting loose a stream of blood, and at the base of this blood flow a green shoot is sprouting up—life rising out of death. Second, I chose Brad Lucas’s bronze sculpture of Christ falling on the way to Calvary, the cross breaking him down and twisting him up. (Click here to view the sculpture from other angles and to read the artist’s commentary.)
Lastly, a painting by Michael D. O’Brien, who describes the image like this:
The ascending birds represent souls being rescued from destroying flames. The rescuer exposes his arms to the fire in order to hold it back while he guides the birds upward toward the horizon, toward light. The human figure is a “type” or symbolic metaphor of Christ.
Jesus is the hero in all three artistic works: he causes us to flourish and to fly. To enter into this growth, this freedom, we need only lay our sins on him.
Lightness of being—that’s what Jesus achieved for us. But as these artists remind us in their respective images, he first had to be torn open, crushed, burned.