Katheryn Scott’s “At the Foot of the Cross” contains these words:
Trade these ashes in for beauty
And wear forgiveness like a crown
Coming to kiss the feet of mercy
I lay every burden down
At the foot of the cross
I’ve sung this song quite a few times and I have never sung it in the same way twice. That’s a good thing; we won’t always experience good poetry, good art of any kind, the same way. We will, however, experience bad poetry the same way every time.
I’ve read Hamlet many times and it still surprises me. The same can be said for the songs of Josh Garrels and the book of Genesis. The best church songs will have the same quality. The presence and power of the figurative language contribute to the effectiveness of a song to bring some listeners into worship.
One of the first times I sang “At the Foot of the Cross” I was caught by the idea of trading “ashes in for beauty.”
The next time I noticed that this phrase was preceded by the word “these.” This demonstrative pronoun puts the ashes I’m singing about right here–I walked into church covered in them. In Biblical language, to wear ashes, or “sackcloth and ashes,” is to demonstrate grief or repentance; importantly, it is an act of humility. This song, if sung honestly is a song of confession where the worshiper acknowledges his or her sin and the need for forgiveness.
By grace, these ashes are exchanged for beauty the song reminds us, for we are transformed to royalty as a crown is placed upon our heads. We aren’t just forgiven but received as children of the King. This transformation occurs, not by our merit, but by the death of Jesus on the cross.
We sang this song in church again a few weeks ago. I was caught by the line “Coming to kiss the feet of mercy.” In Luke 7:38, there was a woman who had “lived a sinful life”–Luke doesn’t say she was a prostitute, but this is certainly likely. When I sing this line, I am placed in the position of a prostitute. This is the point and the power of the line. I cannot judge others when I remember that my sin is no less than that of the woman in Luke. But my guilt, as well as the woman’s, is, nonetheless, erased by Jesus death on the cross. She wept and wet his feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. This is the response that this line can evoke in those who sing it–overwhelming gratitude.
This is only one verse: there are two more that are just as powerful.
Not all the songs that we sing in church use metaphors like this–nor need they. Metaphor and allusion are but two tools that the poet might use. And there are many tools. However, when figurative language is used in a song, it should work to achieve the purpose of the song–in this case, lead those who sing it into confession–an awareness of one’s guilt and gratitude in complete forgiveness.
This is an example of how figurative language (and allusion) can work powerfully in a song.
But then there are those praise and worship songs where the figures of speech get in the way of, well, praise and worship.
Here are some of the metaphor issues that completely distract me from engaging with the song:
one dimensional comparisons just lie there with no meaning to explore in the comparison
cliché–these metaphors are so overused so as to become meaningless
barrage–when figures are so numerous that there is no opportunity to receive them
metaphor mosaic–when figures are so completely unrelated that I don’t know if we are talking about clothing, branches, wind, or wineskins
And then there are the dreaded mixed metaphors
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