Singing of Easter

Christ Frees the Patriarchs | Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP | Flickr |
Christ Frees the Patriarchs | Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP | Flickr |

By Lawrence N. Crumb

The late Bishop James Pike of California was provocative for many reasons, especially for his developing ideas in the field of theology. At one point, he remarked that he could sing the creed but not say it. The resurrection of Jesus, which we are celebrating, was probably one of the reasons.

But what does it mean to say that one can sing something but not say it? Singing, or chanting, has been a major means of human expression for as far back as there is any record of human communication. The Church’s hymns have been called its subliminal advertising, but that does not mean they were written to be deceptive. There are many joys to the Easter season: the white vestments and altar hangings, the paschal candle burning brightly, and the return of the joyous word alleluia. But the greatest joy, I think, is singing Easter hymns. Let us look at some and see how they reflect what we believe, what we may say as well as sing.

“At the Lamb’s high feast we sing” (The Hymnal 1982, 174) relates Easter to the Passover of the ancient Hebrews, repeating the word paschal, which refers to both.

“Hail thee, festival day” (175) compares Jesus’ resurrection to the revival of nature in the Spring.

“He is risen, he is risen” (180) includes a comparison with the “glorious morning ray” of the rising sun. The words are by Cecil Frances Alexander, better known for her Christmas hymn, “Once in royal David’s city.”

“Christ is alive! Let Christians sing” (182) provides a late 20th-century perspective. Its triumphal “he comes to claim the here and now, and conquer every place and time” is combined with the reminder that Christ still suffers from “every insult, rift, and war where color, scorn or wealth divide.”

One of my favorites is “This joyful Eastertide,” set to a charming Dutch tune. First published in 1894 by an English cleric who also wrote Christmas carols, it relates Jesus’ resurrection to ours — the “resurrection of the body” that we affirm in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. The refrain is very clear about the centrality of the resurrection in the Christian religion: “Had Christ, that once was slain, ne’er burst his three-day prison, our faith had been in vain; but now is Christ arisen, arisen, arisen, arisen.” This is exactly what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

The Rev. Lawrence Crumb is associate professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and vicar of St. Andrew’s, Cottage Grove.


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