Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hymns for Lent VII: Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

[NOTE: The seventh in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

On this Easter Sunday, we turn our eyes from the tragedy of the cross to the glorious victory of the empty tomb by examining one of the best known Easter hymns--or one of the hymns most associated with the celebration of Easter Sunday:  Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.  The full version clocks in at ten stanzas, the first seven of which are attributed to Charles Wesley.  The last three were borrowed from a similar 14th century hymn called 'Jesus Christ Is Risen Today'.  These days, it's fairly common for churches to truncate the hymn down to about four or five verses

Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Lo! the Sun’s eclipse is over, Alleluia!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail, the Lord of earth and Heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail, the resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, Soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing and thus to love, Alleluia!

Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!
Unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia!
Who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
Sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!

But the pains that He endured, Alleluia!
Our salvation have procured, Alleluia!
Now above the sky He’s King, Alleluia!
Where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
The first five verses are the most commonly used, at least in my experience, so we'll be concentrating on those.  First, a word about the word 'Alleluia' (or 'Hallelujah')--it's a transliteration of the Hebrew word 'הללויה', which literally means 'praise Yah', which in turn is shorthand for God ('Yah' comes from the first two letters of the Hebrew name of God, YHWH (written JHVH in Latin)).  Thus, each line of this hymn is taken as yet another reason for the congregation to offer praise to God.

The opening line begins with the narrative fact of the resurrection:  Christ is risen. (Matt. 28:1-8) He who was crucified, died, and was buried, as the Apostles' Creed says, has been raised to life again.  This fact, originally proclaimed by angels, was preached and is being preached by Christians everywhere.  (See generally the book of Acts)  And just as men and angels proclaimed his resurrection on that day, so men and angels will praise the risen Christ, our joy and our triumph, together on the last day, and every creature in heaven and on earth will join in the song.  (I Cor. 15:57; I Pet. 1:8-9; Rev. 5)  We are right, then, to praise God for the resurrection.

The second verse celebrates the finished work of Christ.  We have been redeemed (Ps. 130:7; Is. 54:5; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:7-8)  The battle is over, and Christ is the victor. (I Cor. 15:54-57)  It is finished. (John 19:28-30) All that is necessary for our salvation has been done--there is nothing left for us to do but believe.  (Eph. 2:8-9)  The darkness of Calvary has been replaced by the light of the resurrection.  (Matt. 28:2-4; Luke 23:44-46) For a short time, it seemed that the Light of the World has been extinguished, but in the resurrection we see that it was but an eclipse--he was merely hid from our sight for a while.  But now our salvation is complete and he reigns for all time as the victorious king, and we praise God for Christ our savior and king.

There is an almost mocking undercurrent in the third verse.  And indeed, the story is borderline laughable.  Those who opposed Christ thought that they could prevent his resurrection (or the appearance of resurrection) by placing a massive stone at the entrance and sealing the tomb and placing guards there.  (Matt. 27:62-66)  But to one who defeated even death itself, a little thing like a rock and a bunch of puny human 'guards' was no obstacle at all.  In fact, it was such a non-obstacle that he didn't even bother to deal with it himself--he had one of minions take care of it.  (Matt. 28:2-4)  Easy as pie, the stone was rolled away, and the 'guards' were beside themselves with terror.  After all, if the gates of hell could not hold him, no stone had a chance. (Eph. 4:8-10)  Death, even death, tried to forbid the resurrection, but to no avail.  (Rom. 6:9; I Cor. 15:54-57)  Its power was vanquished, and now we have access to paradise and need fear death no more. (Luke 23:42-43)  And so we praise God for Christ's victory over death.

The fourth verse is probably my favorite, not least because of the almost direct quotation of I Corinthians 15:54-56 (see also the excellent duet from Handel's Messiah).  In this verse, we are reminded that the risen Christ still lives, and he is our King.  The taunting sign mocked him at his crucifixion (Matt. 27:37) was in reality a foreshadowing of the future, when he would be not just the king of the Jews, but the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  (Rev. 19:16)  Before him every knee will bow and every tongue proclaim his rightful place as king and lord.  (Phil 2:9-11)  And unlike the Old Testament sacrifices that had to be repeated year after year (Heb. 10:1-5), this sacrifice--the death of the King of Kings--was sufficient to atone for sin for all people for all time.  (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 10:10; I Pet. 3:18) He died once that we all might live and have salvation from sin.  This is indeed grounds for praise. 

The fifth verse (and the last one we will consider here) beckons us to enter into the resurrection we now share with Christ.  We have been crucified with him (Gal. 2:20) and buried with him in baptism, and so too we shall be raised with him. (Rom. 6:3-5)  He is our Head and we the church are his body, and so we share in his death and thereafter in his resurrection. (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:17-18) The hymn sounds the only rational response to this news:  Praise God!

The remaining verses continue this theme of extolling the death and resurrection of Christ, and as the first five verses make abundantly clear, this is cause for celebration.  Although Christ is always risen, and our sin is always paid for, on Easter Sunday we especially remember the finished work of Christ on the cross, and the demonstration of power and victory as God raised him from the dead, thereby proving to a watching world that the wrath of God, poured out on Christ, was exhausted, and all who put their faith in him have been reconciled to the Father and will share in eternal life with the Son.

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.

(Honorable mention:  'Low in the Grave He Lay', largely for the excellent madrigalism in the chorus: 'Up from the grave He arose / With a mighty triumph o'er His foes / He arose a Victor from the dark domain / And He lives forever with His saints to reign / He arose! He arose! / Hallelujah! Christ arose!')

This concludes the seven-part series on Lent.  I've really enjoyed parsing each of these well-known hymns and really digging into the meat of the gospel presented in song.  It's been a tremendously helpful tool in meditating on the Lenten season and all it represents, and I hope those who read it have been blessed as well--at least occasionally.  Thanks for reading!

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