By Sarah Puryear
In 2008, musician Andrew Peterson released an album with an unusual title: Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2. This was a little odd: Peterson had never written an album called Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1. As his project took shape, Peterson realized that its songs focused on how the truth of Christ’s resurrection shapes our lives, but he sensed that there was another album he wanted to write someday about the resurrection. He chose Vol. 2, with his music label’s approval, and for a decade the title sent people to Google searching for Vol. 1, thinking they had missed its release, only to discover it didn’t exist.
Peterson finally released Resurrection Letters Vol. 1 in Lent 2018. As promised, the album seeks to draw the listener into the events at the heart of the Christian faith — the death and resurrection of Christ. I was thrilled to discover that this long-awaited album had finally arrived, because Peterson writes out of a biblical imagination that is complex, surprising, and revelatory. He weaves together Scripture references with all the multivalent complexity of a good Arrested Development episode, deftly moving from scenes in his life and references to the Old and New Testaments and back again, without missing a beat. There is no other current musician whose songs give me chills and bring me to tears more consistently. I had to stop listening to Resurrection Letters in the car for a while, because my eyes kept filling with tears suddenly, and I couldn’t see the road.
In the midst of Holy Week 2019, I offer a playlist of Peterson’s music as a soundtrack for your journey through the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord this year.
Good Friday: “Last Words (Tenebrae)” and “Well Done Good & Faithful Servant” from Resurrection Letters: Prologue
The five-song Resurrection Letters: Prologue doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of the matter, taking us straight into the Passion of our Lord with its first song, “Last Words (Tenebrae).” Peterson weaves together the traditional seven last words of Christ uttered from the cross, creating a musical arc that begins with Father, forgive them, gradually layers in other phrases until a crescendo, and then ends with the quiet trust of Into your hands I commit my spirit. The song’s chant-like quality reminds me of the meditative repetition involved in using prayer beads such as a rosary. As I listened, I was struck by the way that Jesus attends to the needs of those around him in his final moments — offering care for his mother, hope for the thief dying beside him, and even forgiveness for his executioners. And yet his needs — his burning thirst and his agony at being seemingly forsaken by his Father — also find heart-rending, honest expression. Then, mirroring nearly every psalm, Jesus places his trust in his Father, declaring his work complete and surrendering his spirit into God’s hands.
In the song “Well Done, Good and Faithful,” Peterson takes up Christ’s fourth word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Using Isaac Watts’s beautiful metrical translation of Psalm 22, Peterson adds a refrain from two New Testament verses, one from the Gospels and the other from the Epistles: “For the joy set before him he endured” (Heb. 12:2) and “Well done, good and faithful one” (Matt. 25:23). Both verses take the long view of Christ’s suffering, reminding us of its ultimate purpose. I particularly love how Peterson unexpectedly applies the master’s praise for his servant in Matthew 25 to Jesus, picturing the Father speaking those words to his Son after his work is complete. If those words apply to anyone, surely they apply to Christ.
Holy Saturday: “God Rested” from Resurrection Letters: Prologue
The last song on Prologue, “God Rested,” begins by exploring how Jesus’ death not only took away the disciples’ Lord but also killed all the hopes they had placed in him:
The man who said He was the resurrection and the life
Was lifeless on the ground now … so they laid their hopes away
They buried all their dreams
About the Kingdom He proclaimed
And they sealed them in the grave.
Peterson intersperses his musings on the disciples’ shock after Christ’s death with what may strike the listener as an unexpected passage from Exodus 20:8-11:
Six days shall you labor, the seventh is the Lord’s
In six, He made the earth and all the heavens,
But He rested on the seventh; God rested
He said that it was finished, and the seventh day he blessed it; God rested
By drawing in those verses from Exodus, Peterson names what was really going on in that tomb, in contrast to the disciples’ natural conclusion that all hope was lost. During his 36 hours in the tomb, Christ continues to recapitulate the story of Israel. He did so before when he came out of Egypt not long after his birth; when he spent 40 days in the wilderness; and when he was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Now Christ does so by observing the Sabbath in the tomb after his work on the cross is complete. The Book of Common Prayer makes this connection in its collect for Holy Saturday:
O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life ….
The Anglican collect mentions this connection briefly, but the Orthodox tradition gives huge emphasis to Christ’s time in the tomb as his Sabbath, referring to Holy Saturday as the “Great Sabbath” and including in its liturgy this acclamation: “The King of the ages, having through his passion fulfilled the plan of salvation, keeps Sabbath in the tomb, granting us a new Sabbath.”
Peterson’s passage from Exodus lifts up Christ’s sixth statement from the cross (“It is finished”) and reinterprets it in light of both the Old Testament law that came before it and the resurrection that will follow it. Just as God’s work in creation was finished, Christ’s work of new creation is now finished, and so Jesus rests from this work as God did on the seventh day. Even in his death, we find Christ faithfully observing the law and resting on Sabbath day in the tomb, because his work is complete.
Easter Sunday: “His Heart Beats,” Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1
Resurrection Letters Vol. 1 kicks off with a pulsing rhythm that the listener slowly realizes is the sound of Christ’s heart beginning to beat again. As resurrection power surges into Christ’s body, Peterson imagines how Christ’s heart begins to pound solidly and powerfully; how his lungs fill with air; and how his blood starts to stir and move, but not just any ordinary blood — “the blood that brought us peace with God/Is racing through His veins.” His attention to the physicality of the resurrection highlights the great miracle God has wrought, as Christ’s body comes back to life.
True to his habit of pulling together wide-ranging scriptural references, Peterson compiles a number of New Testament images about the risen Christ’s true identity: he is Lord of life, Lord of love, Lord of all, the bridegroom come back for his bride, the firstborn from the dead, the one who has destroyed the last enemy. “His Heart Beats” is such a standout that if you listen to nothing else on Easter Sunday this year, listen to this song. (And, of course, I hope you’ll hear and sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”)
And More Songs for the Days of Easter Week:
I commend these songs by Peterson for your Easter Week:
Easter Monday: “Risen Indeed” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1
A beautiful reflection on Peter, Mary, and, wait for it, Abraham’s response to discovering Jesus is risen. Abraham is a favorite subject of Peterson’s songs, so it is fitting that he appears here too.
Easter Tuesday: “Remember Me” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1
This song made my jaw drop over and over, as Peterson intertwines 13 Scripture references about our need for repentance and Christ’s forgiveness alongside the thief on the cross.
Easter Wednesday: “Remember and Proclaim” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1
This song highlights the role of the Eucharist in our remembrance of Christ’s passion and resurrection.
Easter Thursday: “High Noon” from Love and Thunder
Here Peterson deals with another dimension of Christ’s death and resurrection: the supernatural conflict between Jesus and the powers of evil, depicted as a showdown “in the valley of the shadow.” Note the deft and creative use of the image from Psalm 23:4 in connection with Christ’s death and resurrection.
Easter Friday: “Rise and Shine” from Carried Along
The hammered dulcimer at the beginning of this song will slay you even before Peterson starts to weave together experiences from his childhood with the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Easter Saturday: “All Things New” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2
A call to come to Christ and receive from his resurrection life in place of our brokenness.
Second Sunday of Easter: “I’ve Seen Too Much” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1
Sung from the perspective of the apostle Thomas, this song is perfect for the Sunday following Easter Sunday, when we read about his encounter with the risen Lord.
Maundy Thursday: If you’re getting started early in Holy Week, I recommend listening to “Silence of God” from Love and Thunder, in which Peterson muses on Christ’s struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane as a source of comfort for us when we face our dark night of the soul.
As I finished writing this, I happened upon a piece that Peterson wrote about this album, in which he shares his hopes for how this music will accompany listeners through Holy Week:
My dream for Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1 is that it would be the kind of record people turn up to eleven on Easter Sunday, when the world gets its first blush of spring after the long winter, when the cherry trees are in blossom and daffodils are bursting from the ground and Christians all over the world celebrate something that happened — it really happened — two millennia ago… My hope is that the listener would use those five songs [from Resurrection Letters: Prologue] during Lent and Holy Week to dwell on the terrible road Jesus had to walk in order to conquer not just sin, but the grave. My hope is that they would defer listening to volume one until the breaking of the dawn on Easter Sunday — and then that they would sing them out at the top of their lungs, loudly enough that the world would wonder what all the fuss is about.
Build your playlist, and then listen as you continue through Holy Week and into Easter. Through these songs, may you draw ever closer to our Lord, who loved us to the end and now shares with us the hope of his resurrection life.