Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Lift High

   I think everyone in our church family loves it that we end every sanctuary worship service by singing “Lift High the Cross” right after the benediction. This hymn is well over 100 years old, but I didn’t learn it until it appeared in our then-new United Methodist hymnal in 1989.

Risky, fixating on this idea of “Lift high the cross.” During the Crusades, Christian warriors “took up the cross,” emblazoning a cross on their shields and armor, thinking they were slaughtering Christ’s foes in his name. The idea dates even further back, when Constantine defeated his foes to become emperor of Rome – after he evidently had some sort of vision or dream of a cross in the skies, which was then painted onto his soldiers’ shields. He was barely a Christian, and any time armies crush and conquer, we have to question if they’ve understood what Christ was all about.

The image of lifting up the cross derives from John 12:32, where Jesus says “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” Then, in the Middle Ages, a popular poem (“The Dream of the Rood”) imagined what the Cross thought leading up to and after the crucifixion (I was a sapling in the woods, then men cut me down and nailed the holy hero onto me, I felt him tremble, absorbed his sweat and blood, and after they took him down they threw me into a gulley – but later they found me, lifted me high and adorned me with jewels and gold, and all look to me for healing and hope).

Traditionally, “Lift High the Cross” has been sung as a processional hymn – for entry at the beginning of worship, which makes so much sense. But I love it that, at our church, we sing it as the recessional. When we go out, it is then that we lift high the cross – in our lives, in our witness, in our daily existence, where the cross matters, or not at all. I remember being so moved when my theology professor in seminary spoke of Christians living a “cruciform” life. What is it for me, for us, to live in a way that conforms, that patterns itself on, that adores this cross of Christ? The love, the sacrifice, the forgiveness, the total commitment?

For Christ’s cross wasn’t just “on a hill far away” once upon a time. It is now, every Sunday, and on Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon and even Friday evening. “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim… Come, Christians, follow… O Lord once lifted on the glorious tree… draw all the world to thee.”

As my pastor friend concludes all of her services: “The worship has ended; now the service begins.”

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