“Lift High the Cross” In 312 AD, as the Emperor Constantine was preparing his army for a battle against Licinius, according to legend there appeared in the sky a sign interpreted as the Chi-Rho, the first two letters in Christ’s name:
The next night, the Emperor had a dream in which Christ supposedly recalled this sign to him and said, “In hoc signe vinces.” (“With this sign will you conquer.”) The Emperor had his most skilled artisans and smiths fashion these symbols out of precious metals and gems, and they were placed on long poles (known as labarum) under which the army marched, and under which they eventually did conquer the enemy. Marching behind a standard was common for the Roman legions as it is even for modern armies. The Roman standard here:
Became “Christianized” in this:
Prior to Constantine’s rule, Christianity had suffered some of its greatest persecutions. Under Constantine, Christianity became legalized (in 313 with the Edict of Milan) and eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and the West.
This historical legend probably served as the impetus for the Anglican clergyman, George Kitchin (1827-1912) to compose the text for “Lift High the Cross” for a festival of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Winchester Cathedral in 1887. Originally of 12 stanzas, some of the usually omitted stanzas are as follows:
This is the sign which Satan’s legions fear And angels veil their faces to revere.
Saved by this cross whereon their Lord was slain, The sons of Adam their lost home regain.
For your blest cross which does for all atone Creation’s praises rise before Your throne.
Notice the metaphorical use of the term “cross”—this is similar in use to the “blood” imagery of certain older hymns. The cross symbolizes the atoning act of Christ which is completed in His resurrection; accordingly, the literal cross does not atone for anything in the last stanza. It is simply representative of the theological truth of Christ’s atonement for our sins. Likewise, we do not sing of lifting high the cross in the refrain in terms of revering a Roman implement of execution. This is a metaphor for our duty to be living witnesses for Christ in everything we do—whether it be witnessing to a neighbor or simply by our behavior to one another when caught in traffic. From the complex deeds to the mundane actions, everything about our lives should “lift high” Christ’s love.