Text: George William Kitchin (1827-1912). Tune: Sidney Nicholson (1874-1947)
R/Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim, Till all the world adore His sacred name. 1 Come, Christians, follow where our Savior trod, Our King victorious, Christ, the Son of God.
R/ 2 Led on their way by this triumphant sign, The hosts of God in conqu'ring ranks combine.
R/ 3 O Lord, once lifted on the glorious Tree, As Thou hast promised, draw men unto Thee.
R/ 4 Set up Thy throne, that earth's despair may cease Beneath the shadow of its healing peace.
R/ 5 For Thy blest Cross which doth for all atone, Creation's praises rise before Thy throne.
This hymn was the “hit” of the LBW. People who had never heard of the hymn before were immediately taken by it and it became the processional anthem of choice at many celebratory services, synod conventions and the like.
It fits this Sunday’s text when Jesus tells his disciples, especially Peter, that the cross stands right at the center of his ministry and will be certain at the end of his journey to Jerusalem.
The hymn, a mission hymn, recalls the cross that Constantine saw before him, in 312, before the battle of Milvian Bridge, in hoc signes, In this sign you shall conquer. His victory resulted in the Edict of Milan declaring Christianity was not to be persecuted. And some ten years later he declared it the official religion of the empire.
The hymn was written for a celebration of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel so it has a strong mission theme. Some people objected to its triumphalism and wanted more of the scandal of the cross in it. I was asked to provide an alternate text or at least a couple of alternate stanzas which I did. The first stanza was “As Moses lifted up the brazen sign, so will we lift this rose of Jesse’s line.” At least I think that was the way it went. The poetry is a bit better, but it sounds different from the rest of the hymn. It has been used in one hymnal, Worship Supplement II.
Michael Newbolt changed stanza 3 to a baptismal image: “All newborn soldiers of the Crucified/Bear on their brows the seal of him who died.”
More and more I have come to see that going into a hymn text and making it fit our theology or time simply does violence to the original and creates a strange being. Just write a completely new version.
The revision did raise another issue. One editor rejected my version because people would not know what Moses and the brazen sign were doing in the hymn. I found it incredible that a Christian hymn could not speak of the brass serpent which Jesus refers to in John 3: 17!
If biblical allusions are not allowed in hymns, then where are we? As I have noted elsewhere, hymn writers of today have abandoned such allusions and begun simply retelling the biblical accounts in their hymns so that people can learn the Bible stories and remember them. I have no objection to that at all—the evangelical impulse is fundamental by my lights. But it was a moment that marked a change for hymnody, I think.
It is interesting to note, too, that the use of the hymn in hymnals has declined since the 1980s. Why that is I cannot say, but hymnal editors—who are not the same as those who use them!—may have agreed with the accusation that the text was too triumphal.
Despite that, it is certainly of a piece with the thrilling processionals that mark big church events; it has that big Anglican sound that we all love.
In the text, which is very biblical, we hear the words of Christ in John 12—when I am lifted up I will draw all people to me. John does show us that the glory of God is seen most powerfully when Jesus is dying on the cross. That seems as counter intuitive as anything, but it is how faith works. We can see the opposite of what the world thinks in this scene. And Scripture is quite clear on this. Just as the world thinks it is ridding itself of this interloper, he is showing to believers that he is conquering the greatest of our enemies, sin, death and the devil. It takes faith to see that.
I had an old colleague who would ask, with great emotion, who could look at the crucified Christ on Calvary and not suffer a broken heart? Through the power of the Holy Spirit, who works to bring us to Christ, our faith is born or renewed as we gaze on our dying Lord and this cosmic event. And marvel, this took place for you and me. All we can do is sing praise!
Kitchin wrote the text for a celebration in 1887 of the Society for the Propogation of the Gospel, (SPG), the mission arm of the English church, at Winchester Cathedral where he was dean. Kitchin served mostly in academia. He attended Christ Church at Oxford and ended his career as Chancellor at Durham Cathedral. A scholar, he wrote a biography of Pope Pius II and a history of France.
Michael Newbolt revised Kitchin’s version for the 1916 supplemental edition of Hymns: Ancient and Modern. It is his version that was used in the LBW 1978. Newbolt was also a cleric and scholar. Educated at St. John’s College, Oxford, he served several parishes before ending his career as canon of Chester Cathedral.
Sidney Nicholson was one of the great forces in English hymnody during the last century. An organist and well regarded composer, he established what became the Royal School of Church Music in 1945 and worked to further knowledge and excellence in hymnody throughout his entire life. He edited the 1916 Supplement to Hymns: Ancient and Modern and continued to contribute his expertise to the work throughout his life. He was knighted in 1938 for his work with church music.
The choirs of Southwest Baptist Seminary, Texas
First Plymouth Church, Lincoln Nebraska
Chris Rupp and acapella choir