Long before I ever understood Christ's atoning sacrifice or appreciated his glorious resurrection, I formed strong associations with Easter. Sure, the candy and family gatherings created fond, joyous memories. But it was the musicthe same songs every year in my Methodist churchthat blossomed with new meaning after my teenage conversion.
Chief among these tunes is one most will surely recognize"Hymn for Easter Day," written in 1739 for the inaugural service at the Foundry Meeting House, London's first Wesleyan chapel. You know the hymn as "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," composed by the most famous hymn writer of all, Charles Wesley, one year after his conversion.
As with many of the most popular hymns, "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" has survived the centuries thanks to a successful marriage of lyrics and music. Its tune first circulated in 1708 with the Lyra Davidica hymnal, but no composer has ever been acknowledged. However, if you examine Hymn 716 from A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, John Wesley's hymnbook first published in 1780, you may notice a conspicuous absence. Charles Wesley's original text does not include the song's most distinctive characteristicthe "Alleluia!" that ends each line. It seems the lyrics didn't quite fit the tune, so an unknown editor added the famous alleluias later.
Given the special Easter significance of alleluia, it's a match made in heaven. Alleluia, meaning "Praise the Lord," prominently leads off Psalms 106, 111, 112, 113, 117, and 135 in the Hebrew hymnal. In the years immediately following Christ's resurrection, alleluia particularly connoted praise for Jesus' victory over death. Early Christians began greeting each other on Easter with the now-familiar call and response: "Alleluia! He is risen!" "Alleluia! He is risen indeed!" Alleluia is meant to convey emphatic joy, thanksgiving, and triumph.
John captures the triumph in Revelation 19 with his vision of the great multitude in heaven roaring, "Alleluia!" Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, conveyed the joy when he wrote that Christian houses of worship in the fourth and fifth centuries shook from the intense alleluias shouted by believers. Still today, Roman Catholics and Anglicans refrain from speaking or singing alleluia during Lent, but they reintroduce the word into their liturgies to express their thanksgiving on Easter morning.
Even in nonliturgical churches, alleluia retains a kind of liturgical significance. Bernard Lord Manning, a hymnologist, historian, and observer of Methodism during the early 20th century, explained how hymns like "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" functioned as a liturgy for John and Charles Wesley's spiritual descendants.
But in the evening at the chapel [the Dissenting church], though I was uncertain about the prayers, there was no gamble about the hymns. I knew we should have Charles Wesley's Easter hymn, "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," with its 24 "Alleluias": and we did have it. Among any Dissenters worth the name that hymn is as certain to come on Easter Day as the Easter Collect in the Established Church. And mark this furtherthose 24 "Alleluias" are not there for nothing: the special use of "Alleluia" at Easter comes down to us from the most venerable liturgies. Our hymns are our liturgy, an excellent liturgy. Let us study it, respect it, use it, develop it, and boast of it.
Throughout my youth, while my theological awareness remained primitive, this melodic liturgy conveyed to me the triumphant joy that is ours on Easter morning. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Collin Hansen is assistant editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Christian History Corner, a weekly column from the editors and writers of Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
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Still Fighting over Nicaea | The Anglican Communion dusts off and debates some of the Council of Nicaea's forgotten canons. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Dostoyevsky's Disregarded Prophecy | The famous Russian author shows us what's to fear in a world without God. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Losing Jesus' Language | The Assyrians, Iraq's main Christian population, struggle to keep their heritage and their ancient language. (Feb. 04, 2005)
Tsunami Catastrophe: 'Let My Heart Be Broken ' | World Vision has changed much over the years, but the vision and compassion of its founder, Bob Pierce, continues to give it heart and soul. (Jan. 28, 2005)
Football's Pious Pioneer | Amos Alonzo Stagg instilled in football Christian values that remain apparent today. (Jan. 14, 2005)
The Doctrine Doctor | Jaroslav Pelikan has written a history of the Christian tradition on a scale no one else has attempted in the twentieth century. (Dec. 30, 2004)
The Real Twelve Days of Christmas | Celebrating Christ's birth with saints of the faith during the actual Christmas season. (Dec. 23, 2004)
Compassionate in War, Christian in Vision | The man behind the Geneva Conventions knew the heights of success and the depths of failure. (Dec. 16, 2004)
A Problematic Mission? | Would the Spanish friars of California's historic missions have lobbied for the separation of church and state? (Dec. 10, 2004)
Advent: Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 03, 2004)
Shaken Up by the Peace-Lovers | A trip through Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. (Nov. 24, 2004)
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