Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 22, 2009

Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands

Our Easter Sunday service on April 12 included a good number of visitors — both WELS members from other parts of the country, and guests from the community.  One of our WELS guests mentioned how impressed she was that our congregation sang hymns with a high level of enthusiasm, including some of the old German Lutheran hymns that many congregations don’t sing anymore.  Perhaps the best example from our Easter service was the Hymn of the Day, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands,” with text and tune by Martin Luther.  Even though it is not well known outside of Lutheranism (and not always well known among Lutherans, either), it has been the chief hymn sung in connection with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection since the Lutheran Church’s origins.

Several months ago, I posted excerpts from an essay I wrote about J.S. Bach’s setting of this hymn in one of his cantatas.  You can find those essay excerpts at these two links (1, 2) on this blog.  Below, I’d like to share with you a short article I wrote about the hymn which was included in our Easter Sunday bulletin.

Readers may also be interested to know that the text of “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” appears in two WELS resources.  Our hymnal, Christian Worship, includes four stanzas of the text as hymn #161.  The new WELS resource, Christian Worship: Supplement, includes all seven stanzas as hymn #720, set to a brand new tune prepared by Kermit Moldenhauer, professor of worship and music at Martin Luther College (New Ulm, MN).

What it the greatest Easter hymn ever written?  Ask that question today, and it is likely that “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” or “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” will make the top of the list.  Worshippers frequently sing those hymns on Easter morning, but neither is the appointed Hymn of the Day for the festival commemorating our Lord’s resurrection.  The Hymn of the Day for Easter in all major Lutheran hymnals is Martin Luther’s Christ lag in Todesbanden, literally translated, “Christ lay in the bonds of death,” or as Christian Worship #161 translates it, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.”  Luther’s Easter hymn has a long-standing tradition among Lutherans, since it was the Hymn of the Day for Easter in Leipzig from the Lutheran church’s earliest history.

Martin Luther’s Easter hymn was inspired by a medieval Easter hymn from approximately 1100 A.D. called Christ ist erstanden, “Christ Is Arisen” (CW #144).  In fact, Luther’s original publication of the hymn in 1524 was called Christ ist erstanden: Gebessert (improvement).  The improvement was likely a reference to Luther’s tune, which is clearly based on the older hymn.  As for the text, there are only mild traces of the original text in Luther’s hymn.

Christian Worshipincludes four of the hymn’s original seven stanzas.  Stanza one’s opening phrases recall where Christ had been prior to Easter and why: “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands, for our offenses given.”  But Luther immediately takes us past the resurrection story to the end results of Jesus’ resurrection: “But now at God’s right hand he stands, and brings us life from heaven.”  The rest of the stanza alludes to the first stanza of the predecessor hymn Christ ist erstanden, and then concludes with a final “Hallelujah!” — a word that has been absent for worship the previous for six and a half weeks during the penitential season of Lent.

The second stanza in Christian Worship depicts the “strange” battle that took place between life and death.  In the death of Jesus, God, who cannot die, died to atone for the sins of the world and “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).  The end of the stanza closely parallels thoughts from 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter of the Bible.  Compare Luther’s text to Paul’s words: “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

Stanzas three and four make additional biblical allusions.  Jesus Christ is called the “Paschal Lamb,” and the connection is made between Good Friday and the Old Testament Passover.  Just as the blood of the Passover Lamb spared the Israelites from death in the final plague (Exodus 12:6-7,12-13), so the blood of Jesus spares us from eternal death.  Finally, we are encouraged to “keep the festival,” as Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 5:8.  There Paul refers to the Passover festival and the Old Testament practice of removing the yeast from one’s household for the Passover as a reference to keep the “yeast” of sin out of our lives in light of the Lord’s death and resurrection, which has removed sin’s consequences from our future.



  1. I agree 100% — great hymn!

    Our choir sang the new tune from the Supplement for our Easter Day celebration, and I’ve got to say, at first blush, I’m a fan of the new (and dare we say improved) tune. It’s just more Easter-y than the CW tune.

    Speaking of somewhat somber tunes, I’m curious for your input on this — why is the Agnus Dei in CW so somber sounding? Is that intentional, or a result of the setting? Should it be somber, or should it be more joyful, a la, “Hasten as a bride to meet Him…”?

    He is risen indeed!

  2. Interesting thoughts, Pr. Tomczak. Both of the Agnus Dei settings in CW are somewhat somber sounding (p. 23 and p. 35). The first one in CWS (p. 25) is as well, but the second (p. 36) is more joyful, moving up in key three times. Luther Reed in his “The Lutheran Liturgy” says that the Agnus Dei is “an act of adoration and petition… a sacrificial element… the music of the Agnus should be sung softly with deep devotion” (p. 371).

  3. Our church sang the new version from the supplement, and it is very good. Still, I may like the old tune better. Luther’s tune is serious, but not somber or sad, and there’s nothing wrong with being serious when we’re thinking about such profound matters. The version of this hymn on my WLS Chorus CD uses the phrase “solemn glee,” which is a helpful concept, and not an oxymoron. It fits with the idea of understanding Easter in light of Good Friday, just as we understand Good Friday in light of Easter.

    There is a huge emotional leap between Good Friday and Easter morning, and it can be almost too much. Perhaps using Luther’s version of this hymn early in the Easter service would serve as a helpful transition. The more joyful-sounding Easter hymns could be used later in the service.

    Or maybe an Easter vigil on Holy Saturday would also serve to make a more gradual transition in mood.

  4. Regarding the Agnus Dei, it seems to me that a more somber / serious tone is fitting. After all, we are singing the reality of the moment. The word was spoken. Christ is present. Here, now, on the altar, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is a holy thing, as heaven touches earth and as the dying are fed eternal life. While a joyous event (the feast!), it is still a holy and awesome thing. Perhaps peppy (for lack of a better word) music might cause us to lose sight of that. This is, after all, holy ground. Anyway, my thoughts….

  5. I suppose it’s time that I finally chime in here!

    I do like Kermit Moldenhauer’s new tune, but Luther’s original is still my favorite for “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.” American ears sometimes connect minor tunes with a somber mood (although Luther’s tune is technically not minor, but “Dorian” — you can impress your friends with that little tidbit at your next cocktail party!). But we also recognize some exceptions to the “minor = somber” equation (such as “Thy Strong Word,” CW 280).

    Someone has said, “People don’t know what they like, but they like what they know.” I think that applies to Luther’s melody. Luther’s tune takes some effort to learn; it’s not as easy to pick up as “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.” And with Easter visitors in mind, we may very reasonably choose a different hymn for Easter Day worship. Perhaps it is its unfamiliarity leads people to consider it a less than Easter-like Easter tune.

    When I was a high school senior, I joined the Lutheran Chorale of Milwaukee. (WELS readers who know a bit of our recent history will recognize the name of Pastor Kurt Eggert; I count it a real privilege to have sung under his direction in the Lutheran Chorale for a season). As a part of the spring concert that year (May 1993; it turned out to the last concert Eggert directed before his death), we sang the opening chorus and closing chorale from Bach’s Cantata No. 4, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.” Since that experience, that has been my favorite cantata, and that text and tune have been my favorite Easter hymn. Bach’s musical interpretation of the Easter gospel in the opening chorus is just genius (and an example why he is called the “Fifth Evangelist”).

    If people could have the opportunity to judge Luther’s tune after experiencing a live performance of Cantata No. 4, or better yet, after singing the cantata as part of a live performance, I think the tune would no longer seem mournful. Even the experience of a congregation singing Luther’s tune with vigor and enthusiasm, accompanied by a full pipe organ registration, would likely sway many people. It would be difficult to find the tune somber after experiences like those (serious, yes; somber, hardly!).

    Moving on to the Agnus Dei discussion…

    I would like to suggest that the discussion move from a “joyful vs. somber” continuum to a more multi-faceted view of the text and tune. While all four tunes in CW & CWS have their unique style, I find them all to be reflective (opinion: perhaps Luther’s tune in the CW p. 15 “Common Service” the most so, but certainly the others are reflective as well). And there is much to reflect on: the Words of Institution and the Peace of the Lord that were just proclaimed; our constant need for Christ’s forgiveness; the gifts we are about to receive – the body and blood of Jesus, forgiveness, and strengthening of our faith; the intimate expression of oneness between God and each other that is expressed; the preview of heaven’s eternal banquet; etc.

    There is room for both “somber” and “joy” in this text. We ask for Christ’s mercy even as we know and acclaim him to be the Lamb of God who has taken away our sins and the sins of the whole world. So if a particular tune happens to bring out one emotion slightly more than another, I think that’s fine, so long as we keep the full picture in mind of the great miracle and blessing that is coming to us.

    Isn’t it interesting that this post has become a discussion about the appropriateness of text and tune connections in worship? We may have differing viewpoints, but one thing you definitely can’t say is that all music is neutral! Ask Musak!


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