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Hymn History: Christ the Lord is Risen Today



One of the most familiar Easter hymns has to be “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (performed above by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Though, I know I sometimes mix it up with “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and it turns out that’s for good reason!

 

The English text of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” is a translation from the Latin hymn Lyra Davidica, and was published in 1708. Charles Wesley took inspiration from this hymn when writing his own lyrics a mere three decades later. He felt this text did not adequately express the joy and everlasting nature of the Resurrection. In the original text the first line, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, appears with quotes just like that to show that he was taking inspiration from the very similarly named and well-known hymn.

 

Using music to express such matters was a new idea for many Protestant churches of that time. The only music used was those from the book of Psalms, and if sung by the congregation, they only used a handful of different tunes. This obviously limited the scope of music as they limited themselves to music from the time of David – which even left Jesus out.

 

Which is perhaps why Charles Wesley came to have the title of “the sweet singer of Methodism,” as he and his brother, John, were instrumental in starting the Methodist movement. In fact, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” was premiered at the first service of their new church in England, which was held in an old iron foundry and thus became known as The Foundry Meeting House.

 

Wesley was particularly gifted at writing hymns that expressed emotions, rather than songs that described events. This song, while about Easter and the Resurrection, uses it’s eleven stanzas to express the joy and exultation for what Christ did for us. He wanted to express that the Resurrection of Christ was not a historic event, but that it is a living and current event. In the tenth stanza he makes clear that this is something for us now:


Thee we greet triumphant now: Hail the Resurrection Thou!

And he expresses how the Resurrection is for us his original fifth stanza (the fourth verse in our hymnal):


Made like Him, like Him we rise. Ours the cross, the grave, the sky.

 

Now, something that does not appear in his original words, as you might notice from these quotes, are the Alleluias that appear at the end of each line. In the book John Wesley’s First Tune Book: A Collection of Tunes, Set to Music, As they are commonly Sung at the Foundery (London, 1742, no.11) it is suggested to sing Charles Wesley’s words (then called Easter Hymn) to the tune Salisbury. However, this only works if the Alleluias are added at the end of each line.


If you’re familiar with reading music, you may notice that this tune is nearly the same as the slightly simplified “Eastern Hymn” that it is often paired with in hymnals today. We can’t be sure when or who exactly added these Alleluias, but it is appropriate to have them in an Easter hymn as Alleluia (meaning praise the Lord) was used by early Christians from the time of His resurrection to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. This importance is emphasized in modern liturgy by Alleluias being avoided during the season of Lent, once again appearing at Easter celebrations.

 

This powerfully exuberant song is only made more so with the knowledge that it was breaking with tradition, giving the people a voice to show their joy for Christ and what the Resurrection means for us. Treat this song, and its message, as those who first enjoyed it, let loose from their bonds of traditional, dour services to truly express their feelings through music.




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