Hymn of the Week: March 21
by David Sinden,
Organist & Director of Music
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
Lent 5B - March 21, 2021
Hymn 442: “In the cross of Christ I glory.”
John Bowring’s most famous hymn, “In the cross of Christ I glory,” has been included in Episcopal hymnals since 1892.
The hymn’s opening is arresting and unusual in that it relishes in the cross itself, an instrument of torture and death. But this idea is not unfamiliar in our liturgical tradition. “Anthem 1” at the veneration of the cross on Good Friday (Book of Common Prayer page 281) is a similar paean to the cross.
The apostle Paul went so far as to say that the cross is the only thing we should glory in:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
In this hymn, the cross, “towering o’er the wrecks of time,” is an object of supreme luminance. It “glows;” it has “radiance streaming” which, even amidst bright sunshine, “adds new luster to the day.”
Like the inherent tension of rejoicing in the cross, the hymn contains other contrasting images in the fourth stanza: “bane and blessing, pain and pleasure.”
These radiant and opposing images are paired with the multi-hued tune Tomter by Bruce Neswick at Hymn 442 in the Hymnal 1982. This hymn tune was first sung during Lent 1983 at General Seminary.
Tomter contains an unusual-looking key change in the middle, a byproduct of some harmonic alchemy. (The only other hymn tune I know with a key change is Geneva, found at Hymn 515.) On the surface, Tomter changes from F major to F-sharp minor. But the music is so well-crafted that it never settles firmly into a sense of either “major” or “minor.” It is as though the chords pivot around the paradox of the cross, the fulcrum of our salvation, and the point around which “the light of sacred story gathers.” The key change simply becomes a natural part of this ardent hymn melody.
It is sung in the video below by the Pittsburgh Compline Choir: