A few weeks back, I wrapped up a class about hymns at the church. We looked back at how music was used in worship throughout the ages and looked at some particularly famous hymns along the way. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, we used the book Then Sings My Soul: Book 3 by Thomas Nelson, which is not only approachable and concise, but does a nice job of blending history and music.
There’s one hymn that really stuck with me from that class: “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” by Martin Luther (sheet music and full copy of the lyrics here). I have no idea how common this hymn is among Lutherans. For all I know, they sing it every week. Goodness knows Methodists know more than their fair share of Charles Wesley hymns. However common it might be in other traditions, it was totally foreign to me, which means I could appreciate just how weird (and wonderful) it was. Here’s a great rendition by Concordia Publishing House:
First off, it’s an Easter song in A minor. Who writes an Easter song in a minor key? Easter is a celebration! It’s glorious! I don’t expect sad music! But here’s Death’s Strong Bands, full of melancholy, proudly announcing Easter. It’s a mix of joy and sorrow that I didn’t expect on Easter.
The lyrics have that same tension. Just look at verse 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 alleluia! Alleluia!
The first two lines are intensely melancholy, so much so that I’m surprised by the heavenly triumph that follows! And before you say, “Hold on, Vincent! What if Martin Luther was only saying something like ‘Christ died for us,’ in the first verse? That could certainly be considered joyful,” hear me out. The whole hymn vacillates between triumph and sorrow:
Verse two is about how all of humanity was enslaved to sin and death (mournful)
Verse three is about Jesus destroying death and taking its crown (triumphal)
Verse four is about the “strange and dreadful strife” when good and evil fought and good won (triumphal, but with mournful undertones)
Verse five compares Jesus to the paschal lamb that died so his blood could save others (could be played either way; suffering love is a complex theme)
Verse six and seven switch into high celebration, explicitly saying that it’s Easter and we should remember it with food, drink, and celebrations (highly triumphal)
When I talked to the class about this particular hymn, it turned out to be a lot less popular than I expected. The most popular complaint was that it was just too gloomy to sing on Easter and too perky to sing on Good Friday. Maybe it could fit in on a Palm/Passion service? But even then you’d have to cut out the verse that explicitly says it’s Easter. It came off like a hymn with some problems that would need solved before it saw it’s day in Sunday worship.
Apparently the people who compiled the United Methodist Hymnal felt the same way. They cut verses two, three, and five, removing the themes of death, sin, and atonement (the stuff we usually associate with Good Friday). What’s left is significantly more triumphal. Given that verse six and seven are the only two “very triumphal” verses, the percent of the hymn dedicated purely to celebration rockets up from 28% pre-edit to 50% post-edit. This is a common edit of the hymn shared by most mainline denominations and a few evangelical ones.
I can’t help but feel we’re losing something with edits like this. The tension between joy and sorrow and the battle between good and evil are what made the song interesting to begin with! If we ditch that, what are we left with? A weird, subpar Easter hymn that’s arbitrarily in a minor key. Gross. But I get what they were trying to do! They wanted to tip the balance between joy and sorrow in favor of joy! They wanted to resolve the tension and make it a little more Eastery! But resolving that tension made it boring and odd.
If were going to give it some tweaks to help it find a place in worship, a better solution (in my mind) is showcased by efforts like the band Koine. Rather than remove the tension between the celebratory stuff and the mournful stuff, they leaned into that tension. They removed verses 6 and 7 (the explicit references to Easter) and basically turned it into a Good Friday hymn:
Now that’s worth singing! The minor key makes sense. I get it. The sweetness of salvation and the bitterness of Christ’s death are properly intermingled. It feels a lot more loyal to Luther’s original intent as well. I can’t fathom someone asking him if they could ditch the stuff about Christ’s death and sin and him saying, “Oh, for sure! Now that I think about it, it was a little gloomy.” Not a chance.
I do have to admit that the original draft is definitely an odd hymn and a tough sell for Easter. I almost wonder if you could split the verses and make two versions: the Good Friday edit would have verses 1 through 5, and the Easter Sunday edit would have verses 1, 6 and 7. If you sang those different versions on their appropriate days during Holy Week, it might give a sense of continuing work that works really well. But maybe I’m working too hard to make an odd hymn work. Or maybe I’m not properly appreciating what Martin did in the first place! Either way, this hymn’s mix of joy and sorrow hit me just right. I’ll keep pondering this hymn for weeks to come.