In the First United Methodist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas, Easter brought no surprises. The liturgy, combined with a music director devoted to replicating the same service year after year, meant that my childhood memories of church on Easter Sunday would look virtually identical to those of my stepmother from 25 years earlier and those of her mother before her. If you craved novelty, you had better find it in your Easter basket. Once you entered the carved doors of the sanctuary, the service would proceed by rote. And gloriously so.
The same Easter lily procession, the same redolent scent of those white blooms, the same vestments and banners, the same congregational greeting and response (“He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”), the same sermon text, the same doxology and benediction. And the same hymns.
I have not worshiped in a liturgical church nigh on these 35 years. Novelty is the norm in my Easter gatherings, but each Easter my heart still wakes with the notes of Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” surging through my memory.
Hymn No. 302 in the United Methodist Hymnal is as much a sermon as a song, a poetic exposition of the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Though the version I grew up singing had only six verses, the original contained a full 11. Eleven verses to extol the risen Christ, now ascended to the right hand of God.
It is often noted that Charles Wesley wrote over 6,500 hymns in his lifetime, but he also preached extensively. His was a mind and heart saturated in the truth of the Scriptures. Typical to form, his best-known Easter hymn is not merely musical; it is deeply theological. It preaches not just the Resurrection but also the doctrines of original sin, atonement, union with Christ, justification, sanctification, and glorification. And it does so with elegant rhyme, meter, and melody.
Of all its stanzas, the words that arrest me most are these:
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Dying once he all doth save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!
The third verse. The one where the thrum and clarion of the organ fall silent, and the unadorned voices of the congregation swell into the rafters. Wesley skillfully paraphrases 1 Corinthians 15:55, layering in a truth from Romans 6:10: “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” One efficacious death for all sin. One cruel death to remove the sting of death. One victorious death to end the victorious reign of death over humanity. One death to crush once for all Eden’s lisping lie of You will not surely die.
Where thy victory, O grave? Where thy sting, O death? The words Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea speak to the hope of the good news of Easter. But we sing them in a world that indeed reels under the sting of death, and in which, by all appearances, the grave still triumphs. Through tears, tight-chested, we bury those old and full of years, those born without breath, and those with years cut short by illness or violence, by accident or natural disaster, or even—God help us—by hopelessness itself.
When Wesley penned his great hymn in 1739, it was no different. If anything, daily awareness of death’s dominion was even greater. Wesley himself was born the 18th of 19 children, 10 of whom did not survive to adulthood. He buried five of his own eight children in infancy. He lived during a time in which the average life expectancy was a mere 37 years. The prevalence of poor nutrition and infectious disease meant those who lived past adolescence would likely experience the loss of young loved ones multiple times over.
And when loved ones died, they died at home. Only fairly recently in human history has death and its physical aftermath become a process that occurs elsewhere, relatively out of sight. Home was both the setting for death and the setting for burial customs. The “laying-out” of the body took place in the home, as did the wake. Long after the funeral procession to the churchyard, the sting of death would have lingered, readily associated with the very rooms in which daily life took place.
I imagine Charles Wesley walking the distance from home to church on Easter morning, passing through the churchyard with those five small headstones bearing his surname, entering through the carved doors of the sanctuary to sing his own words back to God. Singing hope into sorrow. Singing a balm into the sting. Carrying a costly sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord. I am reminded that my own sorrows can find rest in the declaration of hope. Certainly, Wesley knew to grieve as one with hope. He knew the Son of Man would one day split the eastern sky, with power and authority to resurrect the dead. Visit an old English churchyard and note the direction of the headstones. You will find them facing resolutely east, expectantly.
Like the church of my upbringing, the Hebrew temple was a building devoted to repetition and remembrance. From its articles to its observances to its architecture, it called worshipers to remember the sting of death and to long with hope. For centuries, the blood of goats and rams ran thick in the temple court. For centuries, the high priest offered blood on the horns of the golden altar to atone for the sins of the many. Sacrifice upon sacrifice. The sting of death in the house of the Lord. Rivers of blood, year after year, spilled onto the stones of a sanctuary facing resolutely east, expectantly.
Until at last, Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins. Until at last, death itself was put to death in one final sufficient spilling of blood. Dying once, he all doth save. Yet, the holy one would certainly not be abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor would the faithful one see decay. After he had suffered, he would certainly see the light of life. The grain of wheat that fell to the ground would certainly yield a harvest. Hope was certainly alive.
In Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, Easter brought no surprises. The angel’s words to the women trembling at the tomb testified to the sheer predictability of the morning: “He has risen, just as he said” (Matt. 28:6, emphasis added). Just as the prophets had said. An ancient liturgy, repeated century after century, was at last culminating in its glorious fulfillment. The seed of the woman had crushed the serpent’s head, once for all. The words once lisped in falsehood are proclaimed by Christ in truth to all who call upon his name: You will not surely die! And so, on Easter, we look to the east and raise the cry of victory in the house of the Lord. Lives again, our glorious King. He is risen. He is risen, indeed.
This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.
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