Hymn Guide: Lift High the Cross

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“Lift High the Cross” is a hymn of missionary encouragement and spiritual victory. A favorite for church processions, it sets forth the paradox of the cross: that an instrument of torture and death has become a symbol of triumph and life.

Written for a missions festival by Anglican priest George W. Kitchin, it was later revised by Michael R. Newbolt (also an Anglican priest) and published as a processional hymn in 1916. Sir Sidney Nicholson composed the tune, CRUCIFER, pairing a preparatory march in the verses with a grand and soaring chorus. The hymn is fitting for World Missions Sunday, the feast of the Holy Cross, and especially for services of baptism or confirmation.

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Verse by Verse

The complete hymn has twelve verses, with the first also used as the chorus. This guide starts with the chorus and four verses used in Magnify the Lord: A 21st Century Anglican Hymnal. After that, we’ll include and briefly comment on the additional verses.

Chorus

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world adore his sacred name.

The chorus is based upon Jesus’ teaching in John: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Kitchin’s first version of the hymn had “Till all the world repeats his sacred name,” a fitting choice for a chorus sung 12 times! However, Newbolt’s “adore” puts the repetition of love in every chorus, illustrating John’s teaching that “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Verse 1

Led on their way by this triumphant sign
The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine

The picture here is of the Church as a growing army, drawn together by the cross. It conquers not by killing its enemies but by converting them, which is why the army increases in size.

Verse 2

Each newborn soldier of the Crucified
Bears on his brow the seal of him who died

The second verse dramatizes the process and result of conversion. Each convert goes through a new birth and emerges a soldier marked by Christ and his cross. Sacramentally, this mirrors the liturgies for Baptism and Confirmation, which contain anointing and sealing with the sign of the cross.

Verse 3

O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree
As thou hast promised, draw the world to thee

Here, the hymn takes the form of a prayer, addressing Christ directly and asking him to fulfill the promise from John 12 that he will draw the world to himself. This verse also depicts the cross as a “glorious tree,” reveling in the paradox that the cross has become our means of salvation.

Verse 4

So shall our song of triumph ever be
Praise to the crucified for victory

The final verse sums up the hymn, repeating the themes of triumph and praise. Some versions of the hymn omit this verse because it feels redundant and because there are other wonderful verses in the original to consider (see below).

Additional Verses

Newbolt had seven other verses, included in order and by category below. Congregations might sing the hymn with their own selection of verses, for example, by using the verses on World Missions for World Missions Sunday.

Christ the Captain

Come brethren follow where our captain trod
Our king victorious Christ the Son of God

Originally the first verse of the hymn, this verse encourages the congregation to follow Jesus as its captain. This lays a conceptual foundation for the church as an army and the subsequent themes of spiritual warfare.

The Suffering That Saves

This is the sign which Satan’s legions fear
The mystery that angel hosts revere

Saved by this Cross whereon their Lord was slain,
The sons of Adam their lost home regain

Satan understands power and strength but not the humility and suffering of the cross. Even the faithful angels are in awe of this mystery. But it was by this suffering, in the place of sinful humanity, that Christ saved the sons of Adam.

World Missions

From north and south, from east and west they raise
In growing unison their song of praise

Let every race and every language tell
Of him who saves our souls from death and hell

From farthest regions let them homage bring
And on his cross adore their savior king

Set up thy throne, that earth’s despair may cease
Beneath the shadow of its healing peace

What began with the baptism of 3000 on Pentecost continues all over the world today and will conclude in heaven with a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

On Video

The first video features an organ and choir in procession from First Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. The second is an instrumental version with a brass ensemble, organ, and bells.


Image: Cross in the Mountains by Caspar David Friedrich from the Tetschen Altarpiece (1808). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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