History of Hymns: 'Christ the Lord is Risen Today'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 302
Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
For many in the English-speaking world, Easter Day is inextricably associated with singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley (1707–1788). Of the original eleven stanzas published under the title “Hymn for Easter Day” in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), most hymnals use only four, or sometimes as many as seven. This hymn is a tour de force of exuberant, expressive, and ecstatic language on the Resurrection. Wesley’s hymn was inspired by “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” an anonymous translation from Lyra Davidica (1708) of part of a Latin hymn “Surrexit Christus hodie.” (See Fenner, 2021, for a detailed discussion.) Charles maintained the same 18.104.22.168 meter. Thus, both texts may be sung to the same tunes (with or without “Alleluias”). To avoid the similarity of the opening phrases of both hymns, Church of England hymnals begin with Wesley’s second stanza, “Love’s redeeming work is done.”
Wesley realized that the three stanzas of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” published only three decades earlier, did not begin to cover the theological significance of the Resurrection. Wesley’s language, however, is much more emotive in feel and cosmic in reach than “Jesus Christ Is Risen today.” Compare the original version of the two first stanzas:
Lyra Davidica (1708)
Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739)
Jesus Christ is Risen to Day,
“Christ, the Lord, is ris’n to Day,”
While each has merit, Wesley’s text surpasses the earlier one in exuberance, subtlety, and scope. Note the wonderful chiasmus (visual crossing of poetic references) between “Sons of Men” (stanza line 2) and “Earth” (stanza line 4), which crosses a line between “Angels” (stanza line 2) and “Heav’ns” (stanza line 4). The opening declarative line is in the present tense. The original stanza ten emphatically affirms the Resurrection as a living, current event:
Thee we greet triumphant now:
Hail the Resurrection Thou!
Wesley will not allow us to relegate the Resurrection to a mere historical recollection. Rather, it is a seismic occurrence at one time for all times. Each Easter, we retell the story and re-remember the experience of the Resurrection as if we were actually present. This kind of memory is known as anamnesis, a living memory with much more depth than a reminiscence. Indeed, anamnesis is a central part of eucharistic prayers in many Christian traditions, where the birth, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Christ are recalled in preparation for receiving the elements.
Interestingly, few hymnals retain the quotation marks used by Wesley in the incipit (first line). J. Richard Watson notes,
The quotation marks in line 1 are Charles Wesley’s way of indicating that he is borrowing from a well-known hymn, “Jesus Christ is risen today” from Lyra Davidica, and then continuing to develop the resurrection topos in his own way. It is characteristic of his work in its ability to take an original text and transform it. Charles Wesley wants his readers to know that he is quoting and improving. (Watson, correspondence with author; italics in original)
The reference to “sons of men and angels” is a declaration that Christ’s resurrection is a cause for a cosmic celebration on earth and in heaven. For reasons of inclusive language, this line has been adapted a number of ways, most preserving or even enhancing its cosmic character: “all on earth and [or “with”] angels say”; “earth and heaven in chorus say”; “all creation, join to say”; “Saints on earth and angels say.” These variations along with the interjection of a hearty “Alleluia” displace the quotation in the original line since both earthly and heavenly beings now join in a unison “Alleluia!”
What a difference an “Alleluia” makes!
Most hymnals have inserted an “Alleluia” after each line, something that was not in the original publication, but which was added to fit with the tune Salisbury, a suggested tune for this text in John Wesley’s First Tune Book: A Collection of Tunes, Set to Music, As they are commonly Sung at the Foundery (London, 1742, no. 11).
While this tune bears a resemblance to Easter Hymn from Lyrica Davidica (1708) in use in many hymnals today, today’s tune more closely resembles Salisbury as printed in John Wesley’s Second Tune Book: Select Hymns with Tunes Annext: Designed chiefly for the use of the People Called Methodists (London: 1761, nos. 24, 25). Salisbury, paired with a different text in this collection, is very close to Easter Hymn, though delightfully embellished in a Handelian style of the time.
Why is this important? The interjection of “Alleluia” after each seven-syllable line is unusual. Indeed, this is much more common in hymnals in the United States, either with Easter Hymn or Llanfair, than in Great Britain. Methodists are the exception. They have used Easter Hymn since 1742. Other tunes such as Savannah (7777) and St. George’s Windsor (7777 D) are sometimes paired with the text. Perhaps the divergence in tunes between the two continents, a common occurrence in Victorian hymns as well, reflects a cultural difference in how the two countries process the bold and euphoric language of Wesley’s text. The addition of “Alleluias,” especially in the more melismatic Easter Hymn, transforms the singing of Wesley’s text from an exuberant expression to an ecstatic experience. On the one hand, “Alleluia” breaks up each line, somewhat obscuring the flow of thought. On the other, that “Alleluia” interjection offers the singer time to absorb the power of each line. The rare use of a melismatic interjection in classic Protestant hymnody both recalls the ecstatic jubulus of the Easter “Alleluias” in earlier plainsong settings and sets this tune apart from others in the celebration of the Feast of feasts.
As many have commented, the stanzas reveal Wesley’s ability to assemble scriptural allusions as well as references to other writers. “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” is not a narrative hymn. It does not recount the events that led up to or followed the resurrection of Christ. It is a deeply theological hymn that celebrates the Resurrection with emotive and passionate language, pointing ultimately to the significance of this singular event for humanity. The original fifth stanza follows:
Soar we, now, where Christ has led?
Following our exalted Head,
Made like Him, like Him we rise,
Ours the cross--the grave--the skies!
As Watson notes, “the dashes make the singer pause, and indicate the enormous distance between each point; the exclamation mark continues the ecstatic mood” established in earlier stanzas. (Watson, correspondence; italics in original)
The usually omitted original sixth stanza, alluding to I Corinthians 15:22, stresses our redemption:
What though once we perished all,
Partners in our parent’s fall?
Second life we all receive,
In our heavenly Adam live.
It is interesting to note that this same theme may be found in Wesley’s “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” known today as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” also published in Hymns and Sacred Poems; the original stanza 9 states:
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
By the time we sing the final stanza, we have arrived in heaven—not just as members of the heavenly court—but as companions to the “King of Glory” with knowledge of the Creator and witnesses to God’s power as we sing to and love God eternally:
King of Glory, Soul of bliss,
Everlasting life is this,
Thee to know, Thy power to prove,
Thus to sing, and thus to love!
While truly a “Hymn for Easter Day,” this is also a hymn about humanity’s relationship with the Eternal One. It is about humanity’s full transformation into the image of Christ – imago Christi – and the ultimate consummation of our perfection in Christ.
Coda: Original Use and Later Alterations
In addition to the variety of tunes paired with this text, two additional issues should be mentioned about this famous hymn. First, we are not sure of the use of this hymn in Charles and John Wesley’s lifetime. While this text seems to have captured the imagination of singers for the last two hundred years, it was not included in the small Hymns for our Lord’s Resurrection (London, 1746) and was omitted in the monumental A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (London, 1780). In the latter collection, Watson notes, “John Wesley omitted hymns of the Great Festivals of the Christian year, partly because those Festivals were observed by the Church of England, of which he hoped to remain a member, and partly because this hymn does not fit well into the themes of the volume’s ‘little body of experimental and practical divinity,’” as John Wesley called it (Wesley, 1780, The Preface).
The second issue is that this hymn has been radically altered from the original, both in the number and order of stanzas, as well as numerous emendations accommodating inclusive language, updating antiquated turns of phrase, or clarifying theological points. Such changes are not unusual in historical hymns, though they may be excessive in this case (Clarke, 2018, pp. 102–105). These changes, however, are not just editorial, but have theological ramifications for the singer and the shaping of a congregation’s sung faith.
Martin V. Clarke, British Methodist Hymnody: Theology, Heritage, and Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 2018).
Chris Fenner, “Surrexit Christus hodie,” Hymnology Archive (January 2021), https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/surrexit-christus-hodie (accessed February 14, 2021).
J. Richard Watson, Email correspondence with the author, February 15, 2019.
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.