Lift high the cross

Friday, February 17, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
By Dr. Susan Muto

The hymn “Lift High the Cross,” with its familiar refrain, will be sung in many of our churches during this Lenten season. The inspiration for its composition can be found in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The first stanza of this glorious hymn expresses an invitation we are free to accept or reject. It says, “Come, Christians, follow where the Master trod …,” and where was that? Across the Egyptian desert when it was safe for him as a boy and for Mary and Joseph to return to Nazareth. Once more into the desert for 40 days to prepare, after the wedding feast at Cana, for his public ministry. Around the Sea of Galilee, where he called his first apostles. Up to Jerusalem, where he would meet his destiny, walking the way of the cross. And then the triumphant walk to Emmaus.

Are we willing to walk where our Master trod? Across deserts of intense inner purification from the dissipating power of sin. If he calls us, do we have the courage to drop our nets and follow him. That means dropping selfish sensuality, egocentric ambitions and the comforts of prosperity that might result in our being possessed by our possessions. Will we be ready and willing to pray for the grace to deny ourselves and take up the crosses life puts upon our shoulders — from picayune irritations to major devastations? Do we really believe that the cross is our salvation? If the answer is yes, we may mean it when we sing: “lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name.”

There is much promise in that phrase, “… follow where the Master trod.” In John 8:12, we read what Jesus said to these early believers: “… I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” This one “I am” self-description of who Jesus is contains an amazing promise: If we “follow where the Master trod” (from the darkness of that 3 o’clock hour on Good Friday to the brilliance of his rising from the dead on the third day), we will leave the land of unlikeness darkened by sin and walk into the land of likeness to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, radiant with the light of life, in earth and in heaven.

This text means for us, as it meant for his first followers, that we must “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Reason alone would stop us from following a crucified savior; that’s why we need faith — even “the size of a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20) — to run the race of discipleship from start to finish. Once again we can raise our voices and sing with all the saints: “Led on (our) way by this triumphant sign, the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine” (Stanza 2).

The ashes on our forehead at the beginning of Lent reveal the “seal of him who died” (Stanza 3) and the incredible paradox at the root of our faith that this Lord “once lifted on the glorious tree” and condemned to death “bought us life eternally” (Stanza 4). The price he paid defied protocol. Nothing like it had ever happened before — that out of such a vicious end could come eternal victory, and so we sing in high-pitched notes and in the softest of whispers: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name.”

Throughout this Lenten season and beyond, let us try with every celebration of the Eucharist, indeed with every tick of the clock by which our days rush to their destined end, to recall what really happened on that horrific hill, nothing short of our redemption.

Father Adrian van Kaam explained the meaning of this “glorious tree” in this excerpt from a prayer poem of his found in his beautiful book, “The Tender Farewell of Jesus,”:

… You came as the defenseless babe of Bethlehem.

The lighthearted boy of Nazareth. The gentle friend of abandoned souls in Israel, the sufferer on a cross

To restore our loss of trust in God as Father who does not hover as a vulture over our dissolving life, who wants peace, not affliction, strife, who gathers us tenderly as fallen leaves from a dying tree miraculously

Restored to life.


Muto is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality. Visit epiphanyacademyofformativespirituality.org for more information.

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