Is There Power in the Blood?

Post Author:  Ali Van Kuiken

When selecting hymns for church services at a psychiatric hospital a person must be aware of more than just whether or not the hymn fits with the scripture passages for the day or the liturgical season. There is also the consideration of how the subject of the hymn will sit with someone who may be severely depressed or anxious, actively be having hallucinations or delusions, or struggling with self-harm or aggression. So when one of my chaplain-musician colleagues wanted to sing “There is Power in the Blood” at a chaplain-led church service for psychiatric patients there was lively debate in my department about the propriety of singing the “blood hymns” at a psych hospital. I have found however that not only are chaplains intrigued by this debate, but other pastoral caregivers and liturgical leaders are as well.

In Favor of the Blood Hymns

My Methodist turned Presbyterian colleague Megan was in favor of the blood hymns. She liked the connection between the power of Jesus’ blood and the Levitical perspective that “the life is in the blood.” Talking about the blood of Jesus is thus tantamount to talking about the life of Jesus. Further, songs about Jesus’ blood really focus on the totality of God’s commitment to us in Jesus. Jesus was willing to give his all for his mission of love including his blood, sweat and tears. 

Megan didn’t propose singing all the blood hymns without thoughtful consideration for the mental state of those who would listen to and sing the hymn. Paying attention to context is always important, whether in a hospital or a parish setting. However there is a nice emphasis these hymns provide on the complete and total commitment God has to us. 

Not in Favor of Blood Hymns

On the other side of the debate is my Mennonite colleague Doran, whose view of atonement does not require the death of Jesus. Instead he likes to focus on the life of Jesus. Jesus’ work, which includes his life, teachings, example, and healings, has the power to defeat evil. And every action we do has the potential to contribute to the defeat of evil. By performing good deeds, caring for the needy and living lives of love for others, we perpetuate the life of Jesus on earth today. This is how we find our redemption, not in some bloody sacrifice required by a vengeful God.

His theology leads Doran away from the blood hymns and toward an emphasis on God’s love instead. Indeed, he has discovered that oftentimes the word “love” can be substituted for “blood” in many of those hymns. For instance he changes the line in My Hope is Built on Nothing Less to “than Jesus’ love and righteousness.” And in The Love of Christ is Rich and Free he has changed a line to “Christ has redeemed his sheep with love” instead of “blood.” 

Blood Transfusion

When I gave birth to my second child I lost a lot of blood in the process. The next day while recovering in the maternity ward my midwife stopped by to discuss the results of a hemoglobin test. She strongly encouraged me to have a blood transfusion, although she also offered the option of an iron infusion. After discussing the pros and cons with my spouse, I agreed to the transfusion. Later that day I sat in my hospital bed, trying to remain calm while the nurse ran a new IV port in my hand. His gentle demeanor helped allay my fears and discomfort. I had yet more opportunities that day to calm myself when watching two nurses debate while reading the instructions on a packet of blood to determine the rate at which to set the infusion. Once everything was set up I waited for a few hours for the donor blood to be pumped oh-so-slowly into my veins. 

An image of two plastic vials of blood laid on a hospital gown.

Having a blood transfusion has changed the way I relate to the “blood hymns.”

“The life is in the blood.” This is not something I ever doubted, however, the reality of this hit home during my postpartum recovery and the immediate energy boost I received during the blood transfusion. The idea of Jesus’ blood being spilt for me is now something I feel viscerally. It gives me a new appreciation for all the hymns out there lifting up the blood of Jesus as something to praise God for. 

With Holy Week almost here we will have the opportunity through liturgy, music and preaching to engage with our theology of atonement with our parishioners. One hymn that always comes to my mind is Deep Were His Wounds and Red, one that another chaplain-colleague, Mary, introduced to me several years ago. “Deep were His wounds, and red, on cruel Calvary/As on the cross He bled in bitter agony/But they whom sin has wounded sore find healing in the wounds He bore/But they whom sin has wounded sore find healing in the wounds He bore.” The paradox of finding healing in someone else’s wounds is attractive to me even if it ultimately remains quite a mystery. 

Related to hymns that lift up the blood are those that focus on the cross. In my tradition (Episcopalian) and my particular church we venerate the cross on Good Friday by bowing before it or even kissing it and we recite a hymn extolling the glory of the cross and Jesus’ sacrifice on it. This is a strange, paradoxical thing to emphasize and practice: showing veneration toward an instrument of torture. Yet Jesus’ death and specifically death on a cross has always been theologically significant for the Christian faith.

Interestingly, having had the experience of a blood transfusion and new appreciation for the importance of the blood running through my veins does not make me want to sing more about blood. I find both Megan’s and Doran’s views compelling. Jesus gave his all, he was in it 100%, totally committed. That’s a wondrous thing. And I grew up with these songs. I’m partial to “Nothing But the Blood.” On the other hand I like the emphasis on Jesus’ life and love and how that can connect with a similar emphasis on our own loving actions in our lives. And so I find myself neither totally for nor totally against the blood hymns, but willing to use them in contexts when it makes sense and to emphasize God’s total commitment to creation and reconciliation between the human and the divine.

How about you? Do you use the blood hymns? Why or why not? Where will you place the emphasis on days such as Good Friday when the bloody death of Jesus is particularly commemorated?

The Rev. Ali Van Kuiken is a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in central New Jersey where she lives with her husband, children, and cat.

Image by: Karolina Grabowska
Used with permission
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