History of Hymns: 'Because You Live, O Christ'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Because You Live, O Christ”
by Shirley Erena Murray
Glory to God, 249
Because you live, O Christ,
the garden of the world has come to flower,
the darkness of the tomb
is flooded with your resurrection power.
The stone has rolled away, and death cannot imprison!
O sing the Easter Day, for Jesus Christ has risen,
has risen, has risen, has risen!*
*© 1987 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
New Zealand hymnwriter Shirley Erena Murray (1931–2020) describes the impetus for this hymn:
The creative irritant to write this came from the outdated words in our parish hymnbook and my love of this great tune. I wanted a fresh expression of community joyfulness, with light, color and the vision of the covenant rainbow through the Resurrection (Murray, 1992, Notes).
The tune is the buoyant seventeenth-century Dutch melody VRUECHTEN, music usually associated with Easter, most often with “This Joyful Eastertide” (1894) by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), a British priest devoted to the Anglo-Catholic movement in the later nineteenth century. It may have been Woodward’s text that Murray found “outdated” and in need of “a fresh expression.” British Methodist minister Fred Pratt Green (1903–2000) updated Woodward’s text in 1969 with a hymn that begins with the same incipit (opening line)—“This joyful Eastertide,” followed by “What need is there for grieving.” Green’s hymn is more of a modernization of Woodward’s text. Murray’s stands on its own, offering the singer fresh images while grounded in classic biblical metaphors.
As a New Zealander, Murray lived in a part of the world where Easter happens in the winter season. Thus, as hymnologist and hymnwriter Carl P. Daw Jr. notes, “She has drawn on perennial images for her stanzas: at any given time in some part of ‘the garden of creation’ is flowering, the ‘spirit of hope’ [stanza 2] knows no season, and the ‘rainbow of your peace’ [stanza 3] is always welcome” (Daw, 2016, p. 252).
The refrain contains the traditional metaphors for Easter, for example, “the stone has rolled away” (Matt 28:2; Luke 24:2; John 20:1). The second metaphor—“death cannot imprison!”—echoes Martin Luther’s hymn, “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands”). This historic hymn emphasizes that death could not imprison Christ, a concept that appears in Revelation 1:18: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (NIV).
Murray incorporates creative turns of phrase in each stanza that enliven the Resurrection for today’s singers. For example, “the darkness of the tomb / is flooded with your resurrection power.” Rather than flooding with light, the usual antithesis to darkness, she chooses “power.” In stanza 2, the author seizes upon the metaphor of a bird freed from a cage—“our cages of despair.” This resonates as an extension of the prison metaphor in the refrain. The rainbow metaphor in the third stanza recalls the covenant God made with Noah (Gen 9:17) and the renewal of this covenant in the resurrection of Christ. It is a metaphor of abundance that “span[s] creation”—the new creation.
The refrain repeats “has risen” four times, providing a cascading effect that is rendered even more powerful with the rising melodic line that spills over into a melisma in the final “risen.” Though directed to Easter Day in the refrain, this hymn is appropriate for Eastertide as well.
The hymn first appeared in the author’s initial hymn collection In Every Corner, Sing (Wellington, 1987). In the United States, The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) was the first to include this hymn. It then appeared in the author’s initial USA collection, In Every Corner Sing: The Hymns of Shirley Erena Murray (Carol Stream, IL, 1992), followed by the United Church of Christ The New Century Hymnal (1995). and the Canadian United Church hymnal Voices United (1996). Most recently, it appears in the Presbyterian Church (USA) collection Glory to God (2013).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Gordon Giles, “George Ratcliffe Woodward,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.
Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/g/george-ratcliffe-woodward (accessed February 8, 2023).
Shirley Erena Murray, In Every Corner Sing (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1992).
Scripture verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.