Home History of Hymns: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”

History of Hymns: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”

"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"
Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 302

Charles Wesley

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!

"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" is a classic Easter hymn by the great hymn writer Charles Wesley. It first appeared in a collection by John and Charles Wesley called Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) without the "alleluia's," which were added in the early 19th century.

Only a few other minor changes have been made since that time. The six stanzas that appear in The UM Hymnal have been adapted from the original 11; stanzas six, seven, eight and nine have been left out entirely. The current second stanza is actually the first couplet of the original second stanza and the last couplet of the original third stanza.

One other change of note occurred in the second line of the first stanza, which has been altered from "Sons of men and angels say" to "Earth and heaven in chorus say." Though altered for inclusive language purposes, this change actually gives more emphasis to the metaphor in the second line that describes heaven and earth in chorus -- now they are antiphonal, with heaven singing and the reply coming back from earth.

Charles Wesley has written a hymn in praise of the power of Christ. The hymn begins with both heaven and earth singing in praise of Christ having won the battle and defeated death. The praise continues in the second stanza where Wesley first refers to Christ as "Love" and "redeemer." He quotes Paul's letter to the Corinthians (15:55) where Paul is taunting death: "Where O Death is now thy sting? Where's thy victory boasting grave?" The next stanza answers the question and says that we have the same power, if we follow Christ.

A striking feature of the hymn is that its text is written in the present tense. "Christ the Lord is risen today" -- not "has risen" or "rose." This is powerful because it places us in community with those who witnessed the resurrection in their own lifetimes, and reaffirms our own hope of being set free from death. "Made like him, like him we rise" -- also stated in the present tense -- conveys a hope that brings God's power and new life now, lifting us from our current situation of "death" and into everlasting life.

Hope? Now? Is Wesley saying that Christ's hope is now? And if so what does this mean for the suffering, the oppressed, the abused and the lost? Is Wesley calling us to action? If we follow the example of our "exalted head," will it take us to "the cross, the grave, the skies?" Alleluia, it will! I think he is calling us to action! The skies are exciting, but we also need to be willing to follow Christ to the cross and the grave even if we know that we will be triumphant over them.

The final stanza declares that if we are indeed made like Christ and we follow his example, then we can know everlasting life (John 3:16). This is our ultimate hope -- present, past and future. This is so empowering to us and to others, to know that Christ died for us, and that his power enables us to overcome suffering and death just like he did. "Thus to sing and thus to love, Alleluia."

Peyton Strouth is a master of sacred music candidate at Perkins School of Theology and a student of Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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