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Death is Swallowed Up by Death: Why You Need Luther’s Easter Hymn

Death is Swallowed Up by Death: Why You Need Luther’s Easter Hymn 

Luther’s great Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands”) was a reworking of the most famous Easter hymn of the medieval church, Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises”). 

The Latin original, sometimes attributed to Wipo of Burgundy, traces the arc from Good Friday to Easter, from crucifixion to Resurrection, from the picture of Paschal Victim to that of Victor King, or what has been called the Christus Victor theme. It is an apologetic hymn which, employing dialogue form, asks Mary to describe what she saw on her way to the tomb on Easter morning, thus calling on her as the primary witness for the evidence of the Resurrection: “Speak Mary declaring, / what thou sawest wayfaring?”

The hymn recounts Mary’s experience told in John 20, giving detailed description of the empty tomb and folded grave clothes in a biblical testimony intended to strengthen the faith of the Church and their understanding of the gospel, especially in an era when the people had no access to Scripture and most were unable to read.

The text expresses wonder at the paradox of Christ’s sacrifice in the striking line, “The Lamb the sheep redeemeth,” then proceeds to narrate the great “cosmic strife” of Christ against the powers of hell whom he conquered on the cross, an important theme in many medieval hymns.

While the Latin version is an objective third-person narrative, Luther recasts the hymn for congregational worship by using first-person plurals throughout. In every respect he transforms his version into a fully corporate expression for God’s people to sing wholeheartedly and which teaches them as they sing. Luther’s version is thoroughly Protestant in that he eliminates the medieval Catholic term “Victim” applied to Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the cross. Instead, he uses “Paschal Lamb” (stanza 3). Eliminating also the Easter dialogue, he begins his hymn with the cosmic battle scene, further dramatizing it by depicting Christ in the chains of death, lying in the tomb, as if he had lost the battle. But this is no defeated Samson Agonistes[1]; the very next lines depict Christ’s exaltation as described in the Philippians Christ-Hymn[2] and articulates the clear implications of His victory for the Church: “But now at God’s right hand He stands / and brings us life from heaven,” a clear echo of Christ’s resurrection claim in John 14:19: “Because I live, you shall live also.” This stanza captures the note of exuberant resurrection hope in Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon in Acts 2: “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Then, in stanza 2, Luther explains further the gospel implications of the “strange and dreadful strife” in which “death and life contended,” after which victory not only one Man rose from the dead, but the entire “reign of death was ended.”

Departing from the Latin original from this point on, he builds the rest of his hymn on Paul’s explanation in I Corinthians 5:7-8 of the Christian Easter as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Passover now that Christ, the “the Bread of heaven” (stanza 5) has Himself become the New Testament Paschal feast. In order to lay the foundation for this doctrine, Luther must first retell the Passover story in the context of Christ’s sacrifice, which he does by brilliantly conflating Old Testament typology and New Testament fulfillment (stanza 3): “He died on the accursed tree—so strong His love!—to save us. / See, His blood doth mark our door / Faith points to it, Death passes o'er, / And Satan cannot harm us” (Exodus 12:22-23)

Then, quoting Paul directly, Luther unpacks the NT theology of Easter as a time of self-examination and deepening of personal holiness, through his exhortation to believers to “purge out the old leaven” and keep the festival not with the leaven of “malice and wickedness” but with the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”[3]  The third line of stanza 5 quoted below echoes Christ’s words in his last discourse to his disciples before going to the cross, “You are already clean through the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3):

Then let us feast this holy day

on the true bread of heaven;

the word of grace hath purged away

the old and wicked leaven.

The five Reformation solas are richly on display throughout this hymn, as in the phrases: “Holy Scripture plainly saith / that death is swallowed up by death” (i.e., sola Scriptura as the foundation of our hope of eternal life); “the word of grace hath purged away” (both sola Scriptura and sola gracia); and “Christ alone our souls will feed, / He is our meat and drink indeed; / faith lives upon no other” (solus Christus and sola fide). Finally, in the praise that was begun in stanza 1 (“therefore let us joyful be / and sing to God right thankfully”) and resonates in the “Hallelujah!” at the end of each stanza, the believers’ thankful praise--now made acceptable to God because it is given from cleansed, sanctified hearts--expresses the soli Deo gloria.

Of the many English translations, the English version of Richard Massie (1800-1887) is both accurate and singable and is the most widely-used in North America, but has had many revisions with subtle variances in emphasis. The tune, which Luther reworked from two Latin Easter melodies, is available in hymnals both in early German Reformation style without barlines,[4] or in 4/4 time, as in the Trinity Hymnal, Revised Ed.[5] or The Worshipbook: Services and Hymns.[6]

This Holy Week, as we walk through the next days remembering Christ in His darkest hour, let us recall these Scripture passages and this hymn. After this Sunday, let us keep placing before our people the full implications of the battle He won, and encourage them to meditate on these. “It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”  This will lead us to Hallelujah on this Easter Sunday and the season beyond.

1 Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands,
For our offenses given;
But now at God's right hand He stands
And brings us life from heaven;
Therefore let us joyful be
And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of hallelujah!
Hallelujah!

2 It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
His sting is lost forever.
Hallelujah!

3 Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree--
So strong His love!--to save us.
See, His blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, death passes o'er,
And Satan cannot harm us.
Hallelujah!

4 So let us keep the festival
Whereto the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the Joy of all,
The Sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart
Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended.
Hallelujah!

5 Then let us feast this Easter Day
On Christ, the Bread of heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away
The old and evil leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed,
He is our meat and drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other.
Hallelujah!

Amen.

Notes:

[1] The title of John Milton’s great epic poem (1671) about the agonies of Samson in bondage, tormented by the Philistines and by his own guilt after he had sinned and failed God’s calling on his life.

[2] Philippians 2:5-11.

[3] Luther may also be making an oblique reference to the Pauline concept in Romans 6 of being “raised to walk in newness of life,” although he does not quote Romans 6 directly.

[4] As found in the Lutheran Hymnal (1941), #195, found at Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/hymn/LH1941/195, and the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018), #617, see Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/hymn/TPH2018/page/618. The 4/4 tune version with J. S. Bach’s harmonization in D harmonic minor (with frequent raised 7th or leading tone) is available as a downloadable PDF at https://hymnary.org/media/fetch/137482.

[5] Trinity Hymnal, Revised Ed. (Atlanta and Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications, 1990), #279.

[6] The Worshipbook: Services and Hymns (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), #327. Page score at https://hymnary.org/hymn/WSH1972/page/327, accessed 4/16/2019.


Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics.