History of Hymns: 'Christ Has Risen'
By Denise Makinson
“Christ Has Risen While Earth Slumbers”
By John Bell and Graham Maule
The Faith We Sing, 2115
Christ has risen while earth slumbers,
Christ has risen where hope died,
as he said and as he promised,
as we doubted and denied.
Let the moon embrace the blessing;
let the sun sustain the cheer;
let the world confirm the rumor:
Christ is risen, God is here!*
*John L. Bell & Graham Maule © 1988, 1996 WGRG, admin. GIA Publications, Inc., Chicago, IL. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
One beautiful tradition for many churches on Easter morning is to begin outside with a Sunrise Service. Gathering with the community while it is still dark and when much of the world is still sleeping reminds us that Christ brings light into the world through hope and new life: “Christ has risen while earth slumbers.” In the northern hemisphere, we celebrate just as spring bulbs hidden in the soil will emerge and eventually burst into flower, knowing that God continues the work of transformation in the world and transformation in us. The closing lines of the final stanza articulate this:
Christ is risen, Christ is present,
making us what he has been –
evidence of transformation
in which God is known and seen.
“Christ has Risen” was written by John Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (1958-2019). Mr. Bell is a Scottish hymn writer and theologian. Mr. Maule was a Scottish artist and musician. Both had a long association with the community of Iona, which is located on a small island off the west coast of Scotland. The Iona Community website identifies its mission as “an ecumenical Christian community of people who seek to live out the Gospel in a way that is radical, inclusive and relevant to life in the 21st century.” In their roles at Iona, Bell and Maule worked with the Wild Goose Worship Group (WGWG) to develop songs and hymns on topics relevant to the lives of those who were often disenfranchised by or disenchanted with the established church. In addition, they passionately encouraged congregational singing by traveling around the world teaching others how to lead the church in song.
“Christ Has Risen” first appeared in the collection Enemy of Apathy: Songs of the Passion and the Resurrection, and the Coming of the Holy Spirit (1988), the second of three early volumes of songs developed with over a dozen dialogue partners in the WGWG. The songs were then produced by the smaller Wild Goose Resource Group for dissemination. The Wild Goose Resource Group consisted of Bell, Maule, Alison Adam, and Mairi Munro, a quartet that also led worship in a variety of settings throughout Scotland and the UK, Europe, and beyond. The collaborative creative process with the WGWG was quite evident in the production of the early volumes as they sought to prepare a fresh hymnody that spoke in a candid, even earthy language that would reach more recalcitrant and skeptical people. This approach was in contrast to the texts of earlier Victorian hymnody that was seen by some as out of touch. “Christ Has Risen” incorporates this direct approach to language. The texts often used folk tunes of Scottish, Irish, and English origins. John Bell and Graham Maule would gather the ideas of the WGWG and shape them into verse, bringing them back to the larger group for further refinement until the final product was prepared (See Hawn, 2003, pp. 204-209).
When John Bell and Graham Maule began to write new hymns for the church, Mr. Bell explained that they felt called to find a “new way of speaking about God to the people or about the experience of the people to God” (Brink, 1993, n.p.). They noticed that many of the hymns represented in The Church of Scotland Hymnary (1973) did not reflect issues affecting people of the day, such as unemployment and child abuse. The hymns also did not represent the diversity of culture present in society. Thus, through the resources of Iona and the Wild Goose Resource group, hymns were collected from around the world, and they began writing new hymns that addressed these new ideas and modern-day issues. “Christ Has Risen” is one of those new hymns.
Unlike other commonly used Easter hymns, “Christ Has Risen” begins in an almost mournful way, as the earth sleeps and hope has died. Because the people of God have not trusted and believed in Christ, all of creation must take up the song and proclaim the Resurrection instead. The Reverend Fiona Bennett wrote this about the first line, “Christ has risen while earth slumbers”:
…While the earth was asleep and not trying to do anything, God was carrying out a revolution in our midst. Their opening line affirms that the power behind this resurrection business is not humanity’s but God’s. It reminds me that God is alive and active, revolutionizing the world through love, in times, places and ways I am completely ignorant of. This does not disenfranchise our existence but is a reminder that God’s dreams and workings are bigger than any one of us can conceive (Bennett, 2015-2016, n.p.).
It is important in the hymn writing of John Bell and Graham Maule that congregation members find themselves reflected in the hymn texts they sing. In this hymn, stanzas two and three name all for whom Christ has risen. Christ has risen for all his followers who mourn his death, for “all whose lives are messed or mangled, / all who find religion strange” (stanza 4). The text reminds us that Christ has risen for all who may be suffering or discouraged and for those who feel disenfranchised by life and established religion. As the final lines of the last stanza cited above remind us, we can dare to hope that the power of the Resurrection can change even us.
“Christ has risen” has appeared with several tunes. It was originally paired with Bell’s original hymn tune TRANSFORMATION to highlight the emphasis of the text on new life through Christ’s resurrection. Another tune used with this text is SUO GAN, Welsh for “lullaby,” found in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) hymnal Glory to God (2013). This tune was perhaps chosen because it reflects the first line of the hymn – “while earth slumbers.” In contrast, The Faith We Sing editors chose to pair the text with the lively shaped-note tune, HOLY MANNA. Because the tune is widely known and familiar, it may allow the singer to more fully engage with the text. Based on the pentatonic scale, it is rooted in early American folk tradition. John Bell’s texts are often paired with Scottish folk tunes because of their accessibility, so perhaps it is appropriate to associate his text with an American folk tune.
Stanza three recounts the post-Resurrection story of the disciples who encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34). These disciples did not recognize Jesus “Till Christ ends their conversation, / breaking bread and sharing wine” (stanza 3). We too can find courage and hope in our faith journeys, knowing that the Risen Christ is present with us and within us. The Easter event not only took place two thousand years ago for the “women bringing flowers to grace his grave / . . . [and] for disciples huddled in an upper room” (stanza 2), but also is an event everyone continues to participate in each and every day.
Fiona Bennett, “Christ Has Risen While Earth Slumbers.” Singing the Faith
website (2015-2016). https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/posts/christ-has-risen-while-earth-slumbers-stf-296. Accessed January 25, 2020.
Emily R. Brink, “For Whom the Bell Toils: An Interview with John Bell of the Iona Community. Reformed Worship, RW 27 (March 1993). https://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-1993/whom-bell-toils-interview-john-bell-iona-community. Accessed January 18, 2020.
C. Michael Hawn, “The Wild Goose Sings: John Bell and the Music of the Iona Community” in Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 189-223.
Iona Community Website. https://iona.org.uk/about-us/who-we-are. Accessed January 20, 2020.
Denise Makinson is Director of Worship and Music, Southwood Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE, where she has served since 1994. A graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln (B.M. in Sacred Music) and University of Nebraska, Lincoln (M.M. in Organ Performance), she is a deacon in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) and a member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.