History of Hymns: "Death's strong bands" beaten in Luther hymn
“Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands”
Martin Luther, trans. Richard Massie
UM Hymnal, No. 319
Imagine yourself in worship with Martin Luther (1483-1546) on Easter Sunday in the late 1520s, just a few years after he had posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenburg.
Luther had prepared revisions of the Mass in 1523 (Formulae Missae) and 1526 (Deutsche Messe). Only a decade earlier, the entire Mass was said in Latin. Now the Mass was bilingual—Latin and German. Before the Reformation only the choir sang, but now you were singing new hymns in the liturgy as well. Imagine hearing the Scriptures in your vernacular language when before you only heard the Bible read in Latin. Such is the historical and liturgical context of “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ lay in the bands of death”), the German title of our hymn.
Sitting in Luther’s church, you might have vaguely recognized the melody as a Latin chant sung at Easter, “Victimae paschali laudes.” Johann Walther (1496-1570) adapted it and published it in Geistliches Gesangbüchlein (Spiritual Songbook) in 1524. Subsequently, this became one of the most popular tunes of the Reformation. The sound of the music would remind you much more of the folk music you would hear in the village square outside the church than the choir music of the Roman Catholic Mass.
The arrangement by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in the UM Hymnal was not published for another 200 years. The original version had seven stanzas and appeared first in Enchiridion (1524). Richard Massie (1800-1887) provided an English translation of all seven German stanzas in Martin Luther’s Spiritual Songs (1854). Massie, an Englishman and rector of St. Bride’s Church in Chester, was self-taught in German, but became one of the leading translators of hymns from the German of his day. The shortening of the hymn to four stanzas in English took place later in the 19th century in the Church of England Hymn Book.
The hymn captures the essence of the classic struggle between life and death. The resurrection represents the apex of this battle. With Christ’s rising from the grave, the “strong bands” of death were broken.
Stanza two talks about a “strange and dreadful strife” between the powers of life and death. But the victory went to life when death was “stripped of power.” The sting of death (I Corinthians 15:56) “is lost forever.”
The third stanza is one of rejoicing because “Christ is himself the joy of all.” “The Sun” [a pun in English but not in German] both warms and lights us. “The night of sin is ended.”
The final stanza would have been seen in light of the Eucharist with a reference that contrasts the “true bread of heaven” with the “old and wicked leaven,” an allusion perhaps to the unleavened bread used by Jews under the old covenant. The reference to the Eucharist is even stronger as the hymn closes:
Christ alone our souls will feed;
he is our meat and drink indeed;
faith lives upon no other! Alleluia!
Luther adapted earlier tunes and composed some original ones, wrote new and adapted old texts—a total of about 34 texts and tunes. His work was revolutionary and carried the spirit of his Reformation to the hearts, minds and voices of the people.
We may think of this as very old music nearly 500 years later, but to the early Lutherans it was new and daring. Perhaps we need to recover that vigor and give the hymn a fresh hearing (and singing).