- Written by Tom Miles Tom Miles
- Created: 18 February 2016 18 February 2016
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you may already be familiar with this new hymn for our Lenten worship. Anyone who has been to a funeral service at Saint John’s where Del Fredin has played the organ has likely heard the tune “Cross of Jesus” among the musical selections he shares before the service. It is a lovely melody perfect for Lent and well-suited to its text.
The hymn was a product of the collaboration between musician John Stainer and lyricist W.J. Sparrow Simpson. It was part of their most notable work, The Crucifixion, a cantata which was very popular at the time of its composition (1887) and still receives frequent performances today. Much of their work is still known and appreciated. The setting of “What Child is This” in the Lutheran Service Book is one of Stainer’s many popular Christmas carol settings. “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” is set to a tune from another cantata by Stainer and Simpson, St. Mary Magdalen.
Stainer was born in London in 1840. He was part of the choir at St. Paul’s cathedral at ten years old and was appointed as organist at St. Michael’s college at sixteen. He would eventually become organist at St. Paul’s, but had to retire from that position in his forties due to failing eyesight. One of his contemporaries blamed Stainer’s failing eyes on stress, saying “he is universally beloved and esteemed, but his many onerous duties … have all involved responsibility and constant application, and the result is that his sight and general health have given way under the severe strain of sheer hard work.” 1 He subsequently took a position at Oxford. He died on Palm Sunday, 1901, while visiting Italy.
Sparrow Simpson was an author and poet. He was also born in London, in 1859. He was ordained in the Anglican church in 1882. He served as a vicar at a London church for nearly twenty years, and it was while in this post that he wrote the librettos for The Crucifixion and St. Mary Magdalen. In 1904 he accepted a chaplaincy at Ilford Hospital, where he worked until his death at age 92. Wikipedia notes that this Ilford post “was not onerous, and gave him ample time for research and writing.” During this period he excerpted several hymns from The Crucifixion and St. Mary Magdalen for separate publication as hymns.
“Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow” was one of those pieces. It is addressed to the cross “where the blood of Christ was shed” as a meditation on the mystery of Christ’s great sacrifice, that “Very God Himself is bearing / All the sufferings of time!” We hope that it becomes a new favorite in Saint John’s Lenten hymnody.
- John Skelton Bumpus, The Organists and Composers of St Paul’s Cathedral (Bowen, Hudson & Co, 1891), 180.
Enjoy more information about new hymns or the hymns you already love as we explore the Lutheran hymnody. Use this month’s hymn in your devotions and get to know the tune. We’ll be singing it a few times in worship over the next month or so and adding it to our growing congregational repertoire! Information for this article came from Hymnary.org and Wikipedia.