Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Lift High the Cross

The Vision of Constantine The Vision of Constantine

A ‘panegyric’ is usually a formal tribute or speech, sometimes a long poem, in honor of a famous person. This term is used for the Life of Constantine, written by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. This work likens the Emperor Constantine to Moses, contrasting the piety of Constantine with the harshness of the emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians. The biography in four volumes may have historical inaccuracies, but it is one of the most important sources of information about religious policies under the Roman Empire at this time.

Perhaps the most famous section of it is the “Vision of Constantine,” which is also the name of a famous sculpture by Bernini. This sculpture is located at the stairway between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican palace, and depicts the emperor on horseback in front of an enormous windswept drapery, with both the emperor and his horse dramatically startled by a powerful vision. Eusebius’s description of the vision was also the inspiration for a fresco by Raphael, also at the Vatican - “The Vision of the Cross,” a fascinating but rather crowded and confusing depiction which includes two popes, a dragon in flight, a grotesque dwarf (why?), numerous rather disorganized-looking soldiers, and scantily clad maidens and cherubs of oddly incompatible sizes.

According to Eusebius, Constantine was marching with his army before a battle with the pagan emperor Maxentius, (later known as the “Battle of the Milvian Bridge”), when he looked up and saw a cross of light above the sun, and with it Greek words usually translated into Latin as ‘In hoc signo vinces’ (“in this sign you shall conquer”). The following night it was explained to Constantine in a dream that he should use the sign in order to be victorious against his enemies, so before the battle he had his soldiers’ shields marked with the Christian symbol. This marks the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, or at least his recognition of the power of the Christian God; Constantine was apparently not baptized until shortly before his death. A year after the battle, in 313, the Edict of Milan was issued, granting Christianity a recognized place in the Roman Empire and officially ending all forms of persecution.

“In this sign you shall conquer” became an inspiration for the original form of our hymn, “Lift high the Cross.” This was written to be used at a Festival of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at Winchester Cathedral in 1887. The Society is an overseas missionary organization of the Church of England, founded in 1701, in part to prevent Quakers, other dissenters, and Roman Catholics from having so much influence in the colonies. The Society is still in existence, encouraging local parishes, particularly in England and Ireland, to participate in Christian mission work and emergency relief through fundraising, prayer, and setting up links and associations with projects around the world.

A revised version of this hymn was made by Michael R. Newbolt for the 1916 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, where it appeared with the same tune which we now use for it. Unlike the abridged version in our hymnal, it had twelve verses, so it was suitable for long processions, the first stanza being repeated after each of the twelve as a refrain. Here are the verses of the 1916 version:

Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adore his sacred Name.

Come, brethren, follow where our Captain trod,
Our King victorious, Christ the Son of God.
Lift high the Cross…

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.
Lift high the Cross…

Each new-born soldier of the Crucified
Bears on his brow the seal of him who died.
Lift high the Cross…

This is the sign which Satan’s legions fear,
The mystery which angel hosts revere.
Lift high the Cross…

Saved by this Cross whereon their Lord was slain,
The sons of Adam their lost home regain.
Lift high the Cross…

From north and south, from east and west they raise
In growing unison their songs of praise.
Lift high the Cross…

O Lord, once lifted on the glorious Tree,
As thou hast promised, draw men unto thee.
Lift high the Cross…

Let every race and every language tell
Of him who saves our souls from death and hell.
Lift high the Cross…

From farthest regions let them homage bring,
And on his Cross adore their Saviour King.
Lift high the Cross…

Set up thy throne, that earth’s despair may cease
Beneath the shadow of its healing peace.
Lift high the Cross…

So shall our song of triumph ever be
Praise to the Crucified for victory.
Lift high the Cross…

The tune, ‘Crucifer,’ was composed by Sydney Nicholson, organist of Westminster Abbey in the 1920s and founder of the Royal School of Church Music. Hymnologist Raymond H. Glover points out that “the tune name ‘Crucifer’ plays on the literal meaning of the word “cross-bearer” to suggest both the person who performs that function in a liturgical procession and each Christian who bears the cross as a baptismal sign.”

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