The Head that Once Was Crowned with Thorns – A Hymn for the Ascension of Our Lord

The head that once was crowned with thorns Is crowned with glory now;
A royal diadem adorns the mighty victor’s brow. 
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn 432)

On Thursday, May 13, the Christian Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord forty days after Easter, a longstanding observation within the church’s Liturgical Year. In the Gospel of Luke 24:44-53, Jesus reminds his disciples that the Messiah ‘was to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” and that they were not only witnesses to this but were to BE witnesses. He further reminds them of God’s promise that they would be ‘clothed with power from on high’ enabling them to effectively bear witness of these things! Can you imagine what it was like for them to witness the final thrilling act of Jesus upon earth as bodily ascended into the heavens after he gave his final blessing to them?

A fuller account of Jesus ascension to heaven is written in Acts 1:9-11: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were looking steadfastly into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; who also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was received up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven”

One of the most powerful (but least known) hymns for the Ascension was written by Irish poet, pastor, and musician, Thomas Kelly (1769-1855). Kelly was ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland but would later break from the church becoming a ‘dissenter’ and would join the Church of God becoming an evangelical preacher. He was barred from preaching in his local diocese by his bishop because of his fiery evangelical style of preaching but that did not stop him. He would write over 750 hymns including A Collection of Psalms and Hymns and after marrying into a very prosperous family he was able to assist in building chapels in surrounding areas. Kelly died in 1855 and was remembered as an advocate of many worthy and benevolent causes and respected for his faith and humility and passion for the marginalized. His hymn ‘The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns’ first appeared in a Methodist hymnal in the mid 1840’s although it was written in 1820 and has been published in over 450 hymnals world-wide. Theologian, hymn writer, and musicologist, Dr. Erik Routley, described this hymn as “perhaps the finest of all hymns; Thomas Kelly has here comprehended the whole Gospel, and he tells of the Good news and of the mysterious mercy by which we may lay hold of it” (From Singing the Faith)

Kelly’s hymn text is based on Hebrews 2:9-10 which speaks of Christ’s ascended glory and ‘the universal message of grace that is available because of Christ’s suffering.’ The hymn is appropriate for the Easter season and especially for the Festival of the Ascension because the hymn links Christ’s suffering with his risen and ascended glory. Kelly’s fervent belief in God’s grace can be found within each verse of this hymn. Kelly’s heart for the oppressed is evident as he references those who too ‘wear crowns of thorns’ because of their persecution for their faith, or the weariness of life’s burdens and because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, grace and love are manifest to all. In his text he reminds us that we too will reign in heaven with our risen and ascended Savior.

In verse one, we see Jesus exchanging his crown of thorns for a crown of glory. In verses two and three, Kelly fills in the gaps of the scriptural account of Christ’s ascension by describing Christ’s presence in heaven and the glory of those who “dwell above” (stanza three) with him in “heaven’s eternal light” With Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand, he reigns as the “King of kings and Lord of lords, and heav’n’s eternal Light,” ruling our world with His love for our good.

2. The highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right,
the King of kings and Lord of lords, and heaven’s eternal Light:

3. The joy of all who dwell above, the joy of all below,
to whom he manifests his love, and grants his name to know.

In the final verses of his hymn, we’re able to reflect how Jesus turned his cross of suffering into our hope and glory. ‘He turned an instrument used to punish people’s sin into an instrument of redemption by his blood to pay for people’s sin. He changed a symbol of death and despair into a symbol of salvation. His ascension into heaven says, “Yes!” to this and “Amen!” to us, His children by faith.’ (from David Schaller)

4. To them the cross, with all its shame, with all its grace, is given;
their name an everlasting name, their joy the joy of heaven.

5. They suffer with the Lord below, they reign with him above;
their profit and their joy to know the mystery of his love.

6. The cross he bore is life and health, though shame and death to him;
his people’s hope, his people’s wealth, their everlasting theme.

The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns, is often sung to the hymn tune ST. MAGNUS. The tune is attributed to Jeremiah Clarke (1669-1707) who was an English composer and organist from the baroque period and is best known for his Trumpet Voluntary (The Prince of Denmark’s March) which is often played at wedding ceremonies.

Our salvation through the death of Christ with his cross as our hope, wealth and everlasting theme, helps us to understand that when our “little while’ on earth is over, the glory that by faith we presently see a glimpse of we will once day see in person and “reign with him above” as we join our Savior in the victory that he shares with us as we sing our joy forever!


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