THERE can be no greater example of bitter anguish turning into triumph and joy than the Easter narrative.
On Friday Jesus was crucified, dying after six hours in agony. His body was placed in a tomb with a massive rock at the entrance, sealed and guarded on the orders of Judea’s Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
The next day was the Sabbath or day of rest. So it is just after sunrise on Sunday that two of Jesus’s women followers, Mary Magdalene and another Mary, set out for the tomb with spices to anoint his body for final burial, hoping that someone will be able to help them move the rock.
Before they arrive, there is an earthquake, and an angel dressed in pure white descends from heaven and rolls away the stone. The Roman guards are terrified and flee.
When the women get to the tomb they find the stone moved from the entrance, the guards gone, and no sign of Jesus’s body.
Mary Magdalene runs to find the disciples John and Peter. While she is gone two angels appear. One says to the other Mary:
‘Don’t be afraid. We know you are looking for Jesus, who has been crucified.
‘Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but he is risen, just like he said he would.
‘Don’t you remember what he told you when he was in Galilee? The Son of man was going to be delivered up into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and rise again on the third day.’
John arrives at the tomb first and finds the linen cloth in which the body was wrapped lying on the floor. Peter runs into the tomb and sees the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head rolled separately.
After the disciples leave to think about the meaning of what they have seen, Mary Magdalene returns to the garden where Jesus was buried.
She is crying outside the empty tomb when a man whom she takes to be a gardener comes up and says: ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
Mary replies: ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.’
Suddenly she realises that the man is Jesus and says in Hebrew: ‘Rabboni’ (Teacher).
Jesus says: ‘Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.’
Meanwhile, the soldiers who were guarding the tomb go to the chief priests and tell them what has happened. The priests discuss the development and offer the soldiers money to say that Jesus’s disciples stole the body while they were asleep. They take the money and do as they were told. The false report spreads rapidly.
The resurrection is crucial to Christianity. In I Corinthians 15:14 Paul says: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ No resurrection, no faith. And Paul means an actual physical resurrection, not a mythical resurrection or hallucination as some believe. The stone was rolled away and there was no body.
Last year’s Easter Sunday hymn was Thine Be The Glory. Today we have two hymns for the price of one because they share the same theme and the same tune, and even in part the same writer.
The first is Jesus Christ is Risen Today, originally 11 verses written in Latin by an unknown author in 14th century Bohemia under the title Surrexit Christus hodie. The first translation into English was in 1708 by an Irish cleric and administrator, John Baptist Walsh (c 1750-1825), for his Lyra Davidica, or a Collection of Divine Songs and Hymns. He paired it with a tune called Easter Hymn, the composer of which is not known. He used only the first three verses. In 1740 the great Charles Wesley wrote a fourth verse. In 1749 both tune and words were revised by John Arnold for his Compleat Psalmodist.
These are the words:
1 Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
who did once upon the cross Alleluia!
suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
2 Hymns of praise then let us sing Alleluia!
unto Christ our heav’nly King, Alleluia!
who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!
3 But the pains which he endured, Alleluia!
our salvation have procured; Alleluia!
now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia!
where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!
4 Sing we to our God above Alleluia!
praise eternal as his love; Alleluia!
praise him, all ye heav’nly host, Alleluia!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia!
Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
This is a performance on a vintage reed organ by Rodney Jantzi.
Rather confusingly, the year before Charles Wesley wrote the fourth verse for Jesus Christ is Risen Today, he wrote a full hymn based on it, which he called Hymn for Easter Day with the first line Christ the Lord is Risen Today. It appeared in in Hymns and Sacred Poems by Wesley and his brother John in 1739. As I have noticed before there did not seem to be any law of copyright in those days and writers simply helped themselves to words and tunes. Wesley’s hymn had 11 verses but it was later shortened to six.
These are the words:
1 Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
2 Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
3 Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
4 Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
5 Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!
6 King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!
Here is a sumptuous 2016 arrangement by John Rutter:
And here is a virtual choir from the Guilford Community Church in Vermont which was posted on YouTube only yesterday!
For the sake of completeness I should add that both hymns are less often sung to the tune Llanfair composed in 1817 by Robert Williams (1782-1818). Williams, who was blind, was a basket weaver on the Isle of Anglesey, and a musician of great repute in Wales.