Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christ the Lord is Risen Today

Praise for the Lord #97

Words: Charles Wesley, 1739
Music: Lyra Davidica, 1708

This is one of the best hymns ever on the Resurrection. It is traditionally an Easter hymn, but since I believe in celebrating Easter every Sunday, I would be perfectly happy to sing it every week! Both the words and the music are vigorous, brash, almost swaggering. The fourth stanza (in our version) actually taunts death and the grave at their powerlessness over Jesus, and ultimately over His followers. And what could be wrong with that? 2 Corinthians 10:17 says, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord!"

This version of the hymn comes to us through a rather circuitous path. Yes, the words are Charles Wesley's, but the format--singing "Hallelujah!" at the end of each line--was not in his original version. That comes from the text that was originally associated with this tune, "Jesus Christ is Risen Today." Other than the nearly identical first lines, that is a completely different hymn; it is actually a translation/adaptation from the Lutheran chorale "Erstanden ist der heilige Christ," which in turn was an adaptation of the 14th-century Latin Easter carol, "Surrexit Christus hodie."(Julian, 596ff.; more on this in About the music, below) It was apparently John Wesley, in his Foundry Tune Book of 1742, who first adapted Charles's text to this tune with its "Hallelujahs."(Lightwood, 97)

Wesley's original text is eleven stanzas, of which our version has only the first four; most modern hymnals have no more than one or two more beyond this. Since the number of omitted stanzas is so extensive, and what we have left is a continuous whole in itself, I will discuss only these first four. The complete text is available from the Duke University Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition in their scholarly edition of Wesley's 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems (the hymn begins p. 209, or p. 98 of the PDF file).

Stanza 1:
Christ the Lord is risen today, Hallelujah!
Sons of men and angels say, Hallelujah!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Hallelujah!
Sing, ye heav’ns, thou earth, reply, Hallelujah!

"He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay."(Matthew 28:6) These were the words of the angel that greeted the women coming to the tomb on the first day of the week. (Was it not especially appropriate that these women, who were among the only ones to stay by Jesus throughout His crucifixion, should be the first to hear these amazing words?) It was a morning of upheavals, of fear and wonder.(Mark 16:8) It is thoroughly confusing to work out, in harmonizing the four gospel accounts, just who went where and when, and in what order events unfolded.

But what a morning of joy it was! I am indebted to brother Jim Dearman of the White Oak Church of Christ in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for an excellent sermon on this topic this past Sunday, some of which I will try to summarize briefly. Consider this first: Isn't it wonderful that the angel said "the place where the Lord lay," and not "the place where the Lord lies?" There are many famous tombs around the world, to which people travel to pay homage to great leaders; but Christianity celebrates an empty tomb that was barely used!

Because the tomb was empty, Christ was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead."(Romans 1:4) That is to say, He rose again just as the Holy Spirit had predicted through the prophets, and just as Jesus himself had promised. If He had not, the prediction of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38 would certainly have come true--Christianity would have ended before it had begun. His resurrection was the ultimate miracle, the ultimate proof that He was who He claimed to be.

Jesus' resurrection is also a guarantee of our own resurrection some day. Paul reasoned on this as follows:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.(1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
And if He is risen from the dead, then surely He is able to keep His promise of providing us a home with Him someday. Even the night before His death, Jesus promised His disciples that, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."(John 14:3) What did the disciples think of those words, if they thought on them the next day? And what did they think again, when they saw Him alive and triumphant, just as He had predicted?

In light of these things, what can we do but rejoice? Remember His promise that "your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."(John 16:22) The heavenly beings rejoiced at His resurrection, as John saw in his vision:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" and the elders fell down and worshiped.(Revelation 5:11-14)
How can we not join in this rejoicing? As the angel told the women at the tomb, "Go and tell!"(Mark 16:7) They were not to keep this good news to themselves, but shared it with the despondent disciples (especially the grieving and crestfallen Peter), and soon they would share it with the world.

Stanza 2:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Hallelujah!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Hallelujah!
Lo! Our Sun’s eclipse is o’er, Hallelujah!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Hallelujah!

"When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, 'It is finished,' and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit."(John 19:30) If any of the people gathered on that cruel hill heard His words, what did they take Him to mean? If the theives on either side heard Him, they might have thought, "Yes, it is for me, as well." The soldiers may have thought very little of it at all; death was no stranger to them. Perhaps the centurion, at least, admired the Lord's stoicism. No doubt the enemies of Christ, who had gathered to watch the end, smiled to themselves at what they thought was an admission of defeat. And for the small group of disciples still present, what a sinking feeling might have come over them, if they heard those words!

But when they had time to reflect on all that He had said before, they understood what we know from our perspective on this side of the cross. In Luke 13:32, as Jesus' steps drew ever closer to Calvary, He said, "Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish My course." It is the same verb used by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7 when he spoke about "finishing the race" of his life and ministry. Jesus had finished what He came to do--"love's redeeming work." This perfect completion of God's plan became the centerpiece of the gospel, as Peter said in his sermon at the Temple, "What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He thus fulfilled."(Acts 3:18)
For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.(Colossians 1:19-20)
His enemies saw Him hanging dead on a cross; His friends would soon see Him in glorious resurrection; but someday all will see the Son of Man return in victory. The "battle was won" at Calvary, and the tide of war forever turned. When He returns to bring the conflict to an end, it will be a very different scene:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The One sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems, and He has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which He is called is The Word of God.(Revelation 19:11-13)
In the last two lines of this stanza, Wesley makes an interesting reference to a particular detail of the events of the Crucifixion. In Luke 23:44-45 we read, "It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed." In the same way, Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12), the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2), was eclipsed for a time by death. And when the sun finally began to set to close out that terrible day, we have the touching scene in which Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, along with the faithful women disciples, lay the Lord's bloodied body to rest.(John 19:38-42) These men, alone among the Sanhedrin, gave their rightful King something of the dignity and honor He deserved. It was indeed a bloody sunset that day; but He rose again in power and joy, greeting His disciples with the simple word, "Rejoice!"(Matthew 28:9)

Stanza 3:
Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Hallelujah!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Hallelujah!
Death in vain forbids Him rise, Hallelujah!
Christ hath opened paradise, Hallelujah!

Tomb at Horvat Midras.
Image courtesy of
Scholars debate the size and shape of the stone at Jesus' tomb; graves with round, rolling stones were apparently uncommon, though there are a few good examples extant. But the point that matters is that the stone was moved and the tomb was empty. Even the enemies of Jesus did not deny this, though they claimed it was the act of His disciples.(Matthew 28:13) The Bible tells us the stone was "very large," large enough that three women were concerned about their ability to move it unaided.(Mark 16:3-4) It seems reasonable that a small group of people could move such a stone using a lever; it is not reasonable to suppose they could do so without waking the guards. (The idea that a man who had been scourged and crucified somehow survived the experience, then rolled the stone away from the inside with his bare hands, is preposterous.) But the fact remains that the stone was placed there in vain.

Equally unlikely is the idea that any Roman soldier posted to the troublesome province of Palestine would dare fall asleep on guard after the events of that day. Pilate granted the Sanhedrin's request for a guard,(Matthew 27:65) probably at least a squad of four soldiers (a quaternion, Acts 12:4), perhaps more. We know from Matthew 27:24 that the governor already viewed the matter of Jesus as a potential uprising, and if Josephus is to be believed, he already had a less-than-stellar track record in pacifying the people of Jerusalem. Could the soldiers have been unaware of Who they were guarding and why? It is inconceivable that an entire squad or more of Roman troops, on such an unusual guard duty, and during the Passover time when the population of the city was swelled to its highest numbers, would have fallen asleep. Even if they were not exactly the cream of the imperial legions, the fear of a nighttime guerilla attack, and of the brutal discipline of their superiors (Herod put guards put to death in similar circumstances--Acts 12:19) would have kept them alert. But the watch was also in vain.

As a final act of precaution, Pilate even had an official seal placed on the tomb,(Matthew 27:66) warning any potential hoaxers or fanatics that the authority of Rome decreed Jesus to be dead and buried. Breaking the seal would bring down the wrath of a governor whom Philo described as "a man of most ferocious passions," who had already proven himself willing to commit indiscriminate slaughter to terrorize his subjects into compliance.(Luke 13:1) Yet the seal, as well, was in vain.

All these were insignificant compared to the battle that took place unseen. Death had Him, but "it was not possible for Him to be held by it."(Acts 2:24) He "burst the gates of hell" (literally, "Hades," the realm of the dead) and could say to John in Revelation 1:18, "I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." In Christ's resurrection, God "disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him."(Colossians 2:15) Jesus not only broke open the gates, He took away the keys! Death is still with us, but never again can it have the iron grip it once knew. Where Jesus went, we may follow: "when He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men."(Psalm 68:18, Ephesians 4:8-9)

Stanza 4:
Lives again our glorious King, Hallelujah!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Hallelujah!
Once He died our souls to save, Hallelujah!
Where's thy vict'ry, boasting grave? Hallelujah!

One line of this stanza has had a significant change from Charles Wesley's original. The third line originally read, "Dying once He all doth save." This could be taken to mean a universal salvation, though we have to keep this within the context of the Wesleys' entire teachings. They were "universalist" in comparison to the staunch Calvinism of their day, and rejected the limited atonement of predestinarian teaching. They believed instead that Christ's atonement is universal, that is, available to every person; but they also believed that it is up to every individual whether to accept it.(Tyson, 37ff.)

Wesley might have been thinking of this passage in particular:
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God.(Romans 6:9-10)
"Once for all" here does not refer to "once for all people," but rather "once for all time," and is rendered just as "once" in the King James Version. Wesley may instead have been thinking of Romans 5:18, "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men." This verse needs to be kept in the context of its neighbors:
For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one Man's obedience the many will be made righteous.(Romans 5:17-19)
The emphasis here is on the superlative nature of the act and the gift, not on the number that will accept it; "many will be made righteous," not all. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ "leads to justification and life for all men," but the fact that something "leads to" a result does not necessarily mean that all will choose to make use of it.

Wesley must have had the ambiguity of this line called to his attention. In the 4th edition of his Hymns and Sacred Poems (1743) he changed the wording to that which we know today.(Wesley, Duke edition, 210, fn. 72) The result is clearer, without diminishing the strength of its declaration of the singularity of Christ's sacrifice.

Wesley's inspiration in lines 2 and 4 of this stanza is the outburst in 1 Corinthians 15:55, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" This quotes the rather controversial passage in Hosea 13:14, in which God addresses the wayward northern kingdom of Israel, concluding, "Compassion is hidden from My eyes." When death and the grave are personified in Hosea, was God calling on them to bring their worst on Israel in punishment? Or was this passage actually promising a glimmer of future hope? Reading the entire passage in Hosea, there is a whiplash effect between thundering pronouncements of doom and sorrowful regret, exemplified in verse 9, "You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against Me, against your Helper." The disjointed style is intensely expressive. "The prophet obviously intends for the reader to take in each short declaration in sequence, without transitions, so that the reader might fully experience the jolting effect of these pronouncements."(Garrett, 6)

But as with so many prophecies, the reality is greater than the shadow. When Hosea wrote these words, the victory of the grave and the sting of death were hardly in question; the northern kingdom of Israel was doomed to a violent end. When Paul quoted them in 1 Corinthians and applied them to Christ's resurrection, it was in a far larger context. It was not the death of a nation that was at stake, but the eternal death of humanity itself; it was not about the graves of a particular generation in a particular place and time, but all the graves in all the world. And this time, the result was different. As C.S. Lewis phrased it in his allegorical story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, "Death itself would start working backwards."
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."(1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

About the music:

One of the distinctive features of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" is the "Hallelujah" at the end of each line, a feature that it acquired not from Charles Wesley's original text, but from its adaptation to the tune of the anonymous hymn "Jesus Christ is Risen Today." Songs with a repeated refrain line after each new line of text can be traced as far back as Psalm 136 ("For His mercy endures forever"). Often this kind of text might be sung in a responsorial fashion, with a leader singing the new line (the "verse") and the congregation singing the repeated line (the "respond"). This practice is found from many different cultures and worship traditions even today.

The use of "Alleluia" as a refrain line in this fashion derives from the Psalms as well; several of the Psalms from nos. 105-118, and from no. 135 to the end of the book, begin and end with this expression of praise. Christians expanded this practice by singing "Alleluia" between verses as well, and adapted the practice to other texts besides the Psalms. The video below records the singing of Psalm 32:6,13 with Alleluias, in the very ancient tradition of the St. Basil liturgy of the Orthodox church:

This practice sometimes carried over into the less formal "carols," the folk spirituals of the Middle Ages. An example of this is found in the old Lutheran chorale "Erstanden ist der heilige Christ" ("Risen is the Holy Christ"), which was a translation of "Surrexi Christe Hodie," a Latin Easter carol from Bohemia dating back to the 14th century. The earliest known German version dates back to 1544 in Nuremburg, and is an adaptation of the Latin carol with "Hallelujah" interpolated after each line.(Julian, 1104) The video below is a performance of a slightly different text, but with the same tune, and "Alleluia" at the end of each line.

This leads us to the first appearance of the music we know for "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." The earliest instance of this tune is on p. 11 of Lyra Davidica (London: Walsh, 1708), with a text translated from "Erstanden ist." Neither the Latin nor the German versions of this hymn have the tune we know; that is apparently original to some unknown tunesmith in the Lyra Davidica. Click here for a recording of the first stanza. (Thanks to my daughter Amelia for recording this with me!)

The preface of this work mentions the desire for "a little freer air [melody] than the grand psalm tunes," and after a century or more of the solemn measures of tunes such as OLD 100TH, this must have seemed shockingly light-hearted. (A similar situation occurred in the American colonies with the emergence of the "fuging tunes" of the singing-school movement.) In its time, the style of this tune was more in keeping with something from the pageantry of the court, or the entertainments of the stage; but needless to say it has lived on in spite of any controversy.(Lightfoot, 95-97)

The form of the tune (but not the harmonization) that we have today is from The Compleat Psalmodist (1742). The most significant change is in the final "Hallelujah," which originally was the same those at the ends of the 1st and 2nd lines. It makes more sense, with such a text, to end (literally) on a high note!

Tune for "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" from The Compleat Psalmodist, 1742

The melody is in the tenor, a holdover practice from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that survived in some Lutheran chorale settings, in English psalm and hymn tune harmonizations, and in the colonial American singing school (it survives today in the Sacred Harp tradition). Here each line of text is presented by the tenor and bass, with the soprano and alto joining only for the "Alleluia" phrases. A facsimile of this version is available from the International Music Score Library Project, in book 4, on page 9 (p. 188 of the 2nd PDF file). I have also provided a transcription for easier reading, a MIDI audio file of the original version, and another MIDI audio file with the soprano and tenor parts flipped for easier comparison to the modern version.

Thomas Butts's Harmonia Sacra (first published c. 1753) has the tune even closer to the modern setting, and also sorts out Arnold's somewhat dodgy harmonization. (Butts however put this tune with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," which works quite well!) Though Praise for the Lord attributes our modern harmonization to the Compleat Psalmodist, there is a better argument that it evolved from Butts's version. Even though it has only three parts--tenor (melody), bass, and treble--the bass line differs from our version only in a few spots, most of them inconsequential differences of passing tones, and most of the treble part can be found in the modern version split up between the alto and tenor. Another significant development is the division of the original half note in the second half of the second measure (on "to-DAY") into two quarter notes. A facsimile is available from the Internet Archive, and I have provided MIDI audio files of the original version and a version with the tenor and treble parts flipped.


Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Dover, 1957.

Philo, "On the Embassy." Translation by Charles Duke Yonge. Wikisource. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Embassy_to_Gaius

Garrett, Duane A. "An Introduction to Hosea." Criswell Theological Review 7/1 (1993), 1-14. http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/28-Hosea/Text/Articles/Garrett-IntroHosea-CTR.pdf

Tyson, John R., editor. Charles Wesley: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wesley, Charles. Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), ed. Randy L. Maddox. Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, 2010. http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/cswt/01_Hymns_and_Sacred_Poems_%281739%29_CW_Verse.pdf

Lightwood, James T. Hymn-Tunes and their Story. London: C. H. Kelly, 1906. http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7106809M/Hymn-tunes_and_their_story

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