Monday, December 5, 2011

Christ is Alive!

Praise for the Lord #98

Words: Brian Wren, 1975
Music: TRURO, Williams's Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789

Reports of the death of the classical hymn style are greatly exaggerated. Yes, this kind of congregational song (several stanzas developing a theme in a complex, objective fashion, and in a high literary style) fell on hard times in the early 20th century. The shock of the modern era, and in particular, the First World War, was a death knell to the Victorian era, and to the hymns of that style. In addition, the growth of a competing church music tradition, the gospel song, undercut the influence of the established denominational hymnals. But that tide began to turn again around mid-century, leading to an era of hymn-writing that has been called the "Hymn Explosion." Central to this movement was the founding of the Hymn Society of America (today the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada) in 1922, and of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1936. Stripped of Victorian verbiage and clothed again in frank simplicity of language, this was really almost a revival of the 18th-century style.

So far the Churches of Christ in the United States have not mined this vein of new hymnody very far. There are probably several reasons for this, including the primacy of the gospel style in our repertoire and a lack of contact with the worship traditions that have been most involved with the modern hymn revival. (Our repertoire tends to intersect with those closer to us culturally, such as the Southern Baptists or Pentecostals.) But just as E. L. Jorgenson re-introduced us to the classical hymns of an earlier age with Great Songs of the Church, hopefully we will find ways to embrace the good and useful within this modern movement as well.

Brian A. Wren (b. 1936) grew up in wartime London, and was baptized into the Congregational church as a young man. He is ordained in the United Reformed Church, and began writing hymns during his first ministry appointment at the Hockley and Hawkwell Congregational Church near Essex. During the 1980s he began traveling extensively giving church music workshops, and has continued to do so after accepting the John and Miriam Conant Chair of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2000.(Wren, "Biographical")

Dr. Wren is one of the finest writers of the modern hymn school, creating challenging and interesting hymns in refreshingly simple language. His texts have real content, and since I do not always agree with his theology, I cannot always agree with his hymns; but even then I find them to be thoughtful expressions of his point of view.

Stanza 1:
"Christ is alive!" Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring;
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.

In this hymn, Wren examines what the Resurrection of Christ means to us today--not in terms of our future hope, but right here and now. How should our lives be different in view of this fact? He begins with the bald assertion, "Christ is alive!" The same simple but profound statement lies behind the very name of God, "I AM." Jesus is not just someone who lived long ago. He is not someone who, like Lazarus, was raised from the dead once upon a time, but is no longer living. He is "the First and the Last, and the Living One," who told the apostle John, "I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore."(Revelation 1:17-18)

How long, I wonder, did that cross stand "empty to the sky" before it was taken down? And what did the disciples think, if they passed by and saw that empty cross, after having seen the resurrected Lord? No one could have predicted that an instrument of torture and humiliation would become the symbol of a faith, but it did. "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Corinthians 1:18) The power of God worked through the tragedy of Christ's rejection and humiliation, transforming it into atoning sacrifice and ultimate victory; "for He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God."(2 Corinthians 13:4)

"Love, drowned in death, shall never die." This is a complex thought packed in a few words. Jesus, "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature,"(Hebrews 1:3) came as the perfect expression and representative of His Father. "God is love,"(1 John 4:8) and though there is much more in this concept than we may ever understand, it is the primary expression of His nature, and therefore was embodied in His Son. "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him."(1 John 4:9) Love was "drowned in death" when that perfect expression of God's love was put to death. But God turned the tables on the Devil; what appeared to be Satan's victory, when the sinful world killed God's Son, instead became the ransom through which humanity could be brought out from under Satan's dominion.
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)
Dr. Wren encourages us to "let streets and homes with praises ring" as we celebrate this good news. The joyous fact of Christ's resurrection is not something to remember once a year, or even once a week; it is something that should affect us every moment of every day. "In Him we live and move and have our being;"(Acts 17:28) therefore "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."(1 Corinthians 15:17) But if He is risen, we know His promise is true: "Because I live, you also will live."(John 14:19) Paul said, "far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."(Galatians 6:14) How can we keep this good news to ourselves?

Stanza 2:
Christ is alive! No longer bound
To distant years in Palestine,
But saving, healing, here and now
And touching every place and time.

When we think of the suffering of Christ, we naturally think first of His crucifixion and the events immediately leading up to that crisis; but it is also worthwhile to step back and look at what He gave up from the moment He was conceived in the womb of Mary.
Though He was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [that is, "clung to"], but made Himself nothing ["emptied Himself," ASV], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.(Philippians 2:6-7)
For thirty-odd years He lived in the same awkward, limited form that we all know from our own selves; and then, "being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."(Philippians 2:8) After that period of time, He returned to the eternal glory He has always known:
Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.(Philippians 2:9-11)
But was He the same? Yes, He lives forever; but in the Revelation (5:6, 5:12, 13:8) He is called "the Lamb who was slain." We may not be capable of really understanding what this means, but we are bound to accept it and rejoice in it!
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.(Hebrews 9:24-26)
From the human perspective, limited as we are by our moment-by-moment experience of time, the crucifixion was an event that came and went on a particular day in the fourth decade of what we now call the 1st century. But to God, it was "foreknown before the foundation of the world."(1 Peter 1:18-20) To the Creator, who stands outside His creation, every moment of time is forever within His view. (I am indebted here to C. S. Lewis's essay "Beyond Personality" in Mere Christianity.) And if this understanding is correct, one of those moments is that Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem. Although Jesus did make that sacrifice at a particular point in time as we experience it, to God it "touches every place and time." That day never dims in God's memory.

"Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."(Hebrews 7:25) If the tragedy of Calvary is always before God's eyes, so also is the victory of the Resurrection. "According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."(1 Peter 1:3) And through the "power of His resurrection"(Philippians 3:10) we are "renewed day by day."(2 Corinthians 4:16) Jesus described this continuing flow of life and power in one of His hard sayings: "As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on Me, he also will live because of Me."(John 6:57) Hard indeed, because it speaks to the life of the spirit and not of the body; but that incredible power still flows from our resurrected Lord even today.

Stanza 3:
Not throned afar, remotely high,
Untouched, unmoved by human pains,
But daily, in the midst of life,
Our Savior in the Godhead reigns.

The Creator and Lord of our universe went to considerable lengths to become one of us. He was literally "born in a barn," to blue-collar parents who had to give the poor man's sacrifice of doves instead of a lamb at His dedication in the temple. He grew up in his father's trade of carpentry; and when His ministry began, His first disciples were men of a similar class, the hard-working fishermen of Galilee. He illustrated His teaching using common things--sowing and reaping, hard masters and wily servants, working in vineyards, and the birds, flowers, and trees.

But when He rose from the dead, His followers were shocked into a different realization of who He really was. (Though Peter, James, and John had seen a kind of preview of this at the Transfiguration.) The Son of Man was seen more fully as the Son of God, and in Luke 24:37 we read that some of His disciples at first found it easier to believe they were seeing a ghost. With his physician's critical eye for the evidence, Luke notes that Jesus showed them the wounds in His hands and feet,(v.40) and ate food in their presence.(v.43) The final chapter of the gospel according to John gives similar reinforcement to the humanity of the risen Lord; what could be more mundane than a Man squatting by a fire, broiling fish for breakfast?

The humanity and deity of Christ, His transcendence and yet nearness, are just not easy things to grasp. Some of the earliest divisions in Christianity came about because of disagreements in how to express these ideas. I want to tread carefully where so many greater minds have spoken, but in this (as with many other things) I cling to the principle of Deuteronomy 29:29, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." Let's study carefully what is revealed, and rejoice in the wonderful things we do know, while admitting that there are things we do not understand.

One thing I understand is that Christ, though "enthroned afar," is not "untouched, unmoved by human pains." He is certainly enthroned as the victorious King, because,
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.(Hebrews 1:3)
But He is not some distant spectator, an absentee landlord. "Christ Jesus is the One who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us."(Romans 8:34) Christians have the promise of 1 John 2:1, "But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."

We understand from our human legal systems the importance of having a sharp-witted, experienced advocate to present our case; but the word "Advocate" here implies much more. It is the Greek parakletos, the same word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit in John 14, and carries the idea of standing alongside another to help them.(Strong's G3875) Jesus is at the right hand of God, but He is also by the side of His disciples, so He is exactly where we need Him! A beautiful illustration of this idea is given in Act 7:56, when Stephen, right before he becomes the first Christian martyr, says, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." It is interesting that this is the only reference to Jesus standing, rather than sitting, in His heavenly enthronement. "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints."(Psalm 116:15)

Another vision of the resurrected Jesus that shows us His presence "in the midst of life" is His appearance to John in the first chapter of the Revelation. Jesus stood among seven lampstands,(v.13) and held seven stars in His hand.(v.16) He explained to John that both of these symbols represented the seven churches of Asia, for whom He had specific messages. He was not viewing the churches from some remote distance, but rather was walking "in the midst," just as He promised: "For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them."(Matthew 18:20) The stars He held showed that the churches are like precious jewels to Him, kept carefully in the palm of His hand. And in the letters to the churches, in the next two chapters, we have proof again: at some point in the course of each letter, Jesus says the words, "I know." He said, "I know your works."(2:2; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15) He knows what we have done, the good and the bad. He said, "I know your tribulation,"(2:9) and, "I know where you dwell."(2:13) He knows what we are going through, and what we are up against.

Stanza 4:
In every insult, rift and war,
Where color, scorn or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
And lives, where even hope has died.

In his collection Faith Looking Forward, Dr. Wren reveals that the first version of this hymn was written for Easter of 1968--just ten days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In view of the despair and violence that followed, Wren tried to say something "with truth and integrity in words that would be more widely applied."(Wren, FLF, note 20; cited from The Hymnal 1982 Companion, 1:370)

Sadly, the words he wrote in 1968 can still be "widely applied." Things have gotten better in the United States since those dark days; good laws have been passed, and existing laws enforced, to ensure that all enjoy the freedoms with which they are "endowed by their Creator," according to one of our noblest ideals. We should celebrate the progress that has been made. But as Jesus said, "From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts."(Mark 7:21) As long as hearts are full of sin, we will have these "insults, rifts, and wars." It is not really color or wealth themselves that divide us, but the sins of selfishness, pride and covetousness. Every nation and people in the history of this world has a stain on its past, or its present. It can be said of us all, "They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one."(Psalm 14:3)

Like everything else about this fallen world, Jesus came to change that. He pulled together an anti-government extremist, Simon the Zealot, and a tax collector, Matthew, and made them brothers. He talked with everyone--the high and mighty, but also the outcast lepers, the blind beggars, and a woman caught in adultery. He made a point to cross into Samaria, and broke multiple taboos by speaking to a woman by Jacob's well.(John 4) His parable of the good Samaritan made a man whose race was considered inferior to be the hero of the story.

The first conflict in the infancy of the church was along cultural lines, as the Hellenistic Jews felt they were being discriminated against, but this was resolved through establishing a diversified leadership.(Acts 6) The second congregation established after Jerusalem was in the city of Samaria,(Acts 8) and an officer of the much-resented Roman army was the first Gentile to come to Christ.

Were there difficulties over these things in the early church? Certainly! Acts 15 tells us of an early problem with some Jewish Christians trying to bind their traditions on the Gentiles. In Romans 14 we learn that the Gentile Christians sometimes tried to enforce their issues of conscience as a rule for all. The second chapter of the letter by James shows us that there was discrimination relative to wealth and position. The early church, made up of people coming out of a sinful world, had every problem of class and race division that the sinful world has today. But as David Lipscomb pointed out in an 1878 Gospel Advocate article,
That race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love, and brotherhood in Christ Jesus.(Campbell, 29)
It is worth noting that Lipscomb was a Southerner, writing from Nashville, Tennessee during the troubled and violent Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Lipscomb was not saying this to win any political points or to garner more subscriptions; it probably had much the reverse effect. But the truth of what he said still rings out; the early church accomplished something incredible, overcoming the barriers that people put up between themselves and others. We can do so again, if we do what they did and follow the Lord they followed. The world is crying out for healing of these divisions; will Christ's followers not take the lead?

Stanza 5:
Christ is alive, and comes to bring
Good news to this and every age,
Till earth and sky and ocean ring
With joy, with justice, love, and praise.

Early in His ministry on earth, Jesus went to the synagogue in His home town, Nazareth. No one was surprised to see Him there, for attending worship services "was His custom."(Luke 4:16) I suspect few were surprised at Him reading the Scriptures; perhaps He had done so often before. The reading was from Isaiah 61:1-2,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
They knew that He had begun teaching in the synagogues,(Luke 4:14) so they were not surprised when He sat back down in the position of a teacher beginning a lecture. Instead, they "fixed their eyes upon Him" in expectation.(Luke 4:20) But I would love to have seen their faces when He made that first statement! "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."(Luke 4:21)

For those with ears to hear, Jesus was proclaiming His life and work to be the good news, the gospel, that would comfort the poor and sick, and would liberate the captive and oppressed. This good news "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."(Romans 1:16) And central to the theme of this good news--the gospel, the evangelion--the keystone holding it all together, is the resurrected Christ. Paul reminded Timothy to, "remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel."(2 Timothy 2:8)

It is an "everlasting gospel,"(Revelation 14:6) never out of date; it is perfect in every respect, with no need for substitution, replacement, or modification. Paul even said, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."(Gal 1:8) It is relevant and applicable to "this and every age," and if the times do not agree with this good news, it is the fault of the times and not of the message.

It is a gospel for everyone; by His own command, Jesus and His redeeming work is the good news to be preached "to the whole creation."(Mark 16:15) It is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed," all the way back in Genesis 12:3. "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."(Colossians 3:11)

And the result? Where Christ is, there is joy. "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory."(1 Peter 1:8) Where Christ is, there is justice. "Justice and mercy and faithfulness" are the "weightier matters," in Christ's own words.(Matthew 23:23) His followers will be like Him, and "execute justice and righteousness in the land."(Jeremiah 33:15) Where Christ is, there is love. Paul admonishes us in Ephesians 5:1-2, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." And finally, where Christ is, how can we but praise Him for all these things His good news has brought us?

Excursus: Gender-Inclusive Language in Hymns

Gender-inclusive language has been with us a few decades now in the public sphere, and I believe we have gotten past the initial awkwardness of the "he/she" era, into a manner of writing and speaking that simply avoids gendering language unnecessarily. I am not casting stones at those who do not follow this trend; the intent and spirit of what is said is more important than the changing forms of expression. But for myself, I do try to be respectful and inclusive of both genders when I write, just as I try to be respectful of my readers in other countries by acknowledging that my experience is mostly limited to the Churches of Christ in the United States.

When it comes to the language of hymns, we all recognize that the expressions "mankind" and "all men" that occur in some texts were not meant to exclude women, but simply reflect the linguistic usage of the era in which they were written. We accomodate the antiquated language of the King James Version in many hymns as well, with the same understanding (though obviously this is not the same kind of controversy). But if a subtle alteration to a text can make it more inclusive, I am glad to use it. I find it jarring, for example, to sing "Rise up, O men of God" in a mixed assembly. (Though there is an argument to be made, that it is usually not the women who need to be spurred to greater activity!) If I had the altered version of this text that simply changes the line to "Rise up, O church of God," I would use it instead, reserving the original for occasions when the men specifically are to be addressed.

But when we are speaking of God, this is a different subject entirely and deserves careful examination. Brian Wren has written clearly and thoughtfully, over many years, on the power of metaphor in shaping our thinking about God and about the Christian life. It is a necessary part of our understanding of unfamiliar things, to compare them to more familiar things.

But though I appreciate the attention he has brought to the subject, it is in the application of these ideas that the liberal and conservative must part ways, because I simply hold to a more literal and verbal concept of the inspiration of Scripture. Since God reveals Himself in Scripture as masculine, as a Father, and as a King, I will not apologize for using the same terms, though I am always glad to refine my understanding of what these descriptive terms really teach us about God. Dr. Wren revised (rewrote, really) the final stanza of this hymn for just such issues. The original text was:

Christ is alive! Ascendant Lord,
He rules the world His Father made,
Till in the end, His love adored
Shall be to every man displayed.

(Hymnal 1982 Companion, 1:370)

The revision of this stanza was doubtless driven primarily by the author's later dissatisfaction with his choice of metaphor--specifically, the depiction of Christ as the "Lord" who "rules" by the authority of His "Father." From Wren's 1989 book What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology, I understand that it is not so much the masculine portrayal of deity that he takes issue with, but rather the metaphor of masculine power and control. This is a different subject, perhaps, because there is masculine power as taught in Scripture and modeled by Christ, and there is masculine power as we see it in sinful men. But here again, my view of Scripture forces me to accept the way God has chosen to reveal Himself.

I think Wren is saying more than that, however, and despite my differences with his premises there is still much to take away from his arguments. God has chosen to reveal Himself in certain ways, using certain metaphors; but He is not limited by our language or understanding. Jesus is a King, and God is a Father, but They are far above and beyond even the best kings and fathers this world has known.
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!(Luke 11:11-13)

We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.(Hebrews 12:9-10)
God obviously has power, control, and authority, but exercises it in a manner beyond any comparison to the power, control, and authority that is so often abused in this world. Earthly fathers can be abusive bullies, and too many are; but God is better even than the gentlest, most nurturing father who ever lived on this earth. Kings and other kinds of human leaders can also be abusive bullies, and too many are; but God is wiser and more just than the very best earthly leader who ever lived.

It is very much worth noting, as Wren does, that God has also revealed Himself in images of feminine tenderness. This is perhaps most notable in Matthew 23:37, when Jesus expressed His desire to gather in the people of Jerusalem "as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings," a metaphor also frequently found in the Psalms. But I will continue to speak of God as "He" (and to be fair, Wren was not among those insisting on "She"), and I will continue to submit to Him as my Sovereign. Let us never limit our understanding of God, however, to a worldly and fallen conception of masculinity.

About the music:

TRURO first appeared in the second volume of Psalmodia Evangelica (1789), edited by Thomas Williams. It is named after the city in Cornwall.( The tune is sometimes attributed to Williams, but appears in his work without a composer named. The more recent attribution to the English music historian, Charles Burney, is without foundation. Originally harmonized in three voices, the common four-part arrangement was written by Lowell Mason.(McKim, 21)

The style of the the melody is very similar to that of "Joy to the world," and the tune has the same feel of a Handel march.( The rhythm of the opening phrase, in fact, is identical to that of "Joy to the world," and the notes are an exact inversion (move in the opposite direction), descending the scale instead of ascending.

This tune is not very familiar to the Churches of Christ, at least in the U.S.; but since this is a Long Meter text, it could be sung to any good Long Meter tune. DUKE STREET ("Awake, my tongue, thy tribute bring") is very similar, and OLD 100TH would do as well. For something of a quieter character, MARYTON ("O Master, let me walk with Thee"), HESPERUS ("Father and Friend"), or ELEOS ("Father of mercies") would work.


Wren, Brian A. "Biographical Information." Columbia Theological Seminary.

Wren, Brian A. What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Respone to Feminist Theology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009.

Wren, Brian A., and Peter Cutts. Faith Looking Forward. Carol Stream, Illinois: Hope Publishing, 1983.

Glover, Raymond F. The Hymnal 1982 Companion, 3 volumes. New York: Church Pension Fund, 1994.

Strong's G3875.

Campbell, Will D. Race and the Renewal of the Church. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962. (Excerpt.)

McKim, Linda Jo. Presbyterian Hymnal Companion. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

"TRURO.", also credits Psalter Hymnal Handbook.

No comments:

Post a Comment