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.