United Methodist Hymnal, 316
Growing up in a black Catholic church in South Louisiana, I found Easter Sunday to be one of the most joyous occasions of the year. The men wore their Easter suits with pastel-colored shirts, and the women filled the church with Easter-lily colored dresses and hats. When it was time for Mass to begin, I remember the incense rising and filling the atmosphere and the choir marching down the aisle singing He Rose.
In the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, the Rev. Carlton Young cites William B. McClain, who provides commentary on this spiritual:
The Resurrection is the divine guarantee that black people’s lives are in the hands of the Conqueror of Death. “He Arose” might appear simply to be a chronicle of the events surrounding the death and Resurrection of Christ, but its refrain, “And the Lord will bear my spirit home,” implies that through the Resurrection of Jesus, God has done something personal for each of us. What God has done is to free us to “do what is necessary to remain obedient to the Father…” and to enable us to “bear the trouble and endure the pain of loneliness in oppression.” (Young, 1993, p. 392, citing McClain, 1990, p. 122-23)
James Cone, in The Spirituals and The Blues: An Interpretation, offers insight on the meaning of heaven and the Resurrection in spirituals:
[Slaves] affirmed that Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the divine guarantee that they have a future that cannot be destroyed by death. On the cross God took their place and transformed the contradictions of the present into an openness of the future. The event of the resurrection is the disclosure of the power of God’s righteousness unto salvation, God’s will to make plain that there is a future for the weak which is not made with human hands. Heaven, in the black spirituals, was an affirmation of this hope in the absolute power of God’s righteousness as revealed in God’s future. (Cone, 1992, p. 93)
In stanza one of “He Rose,” the crucifixion scene is depicted: “They crucified my Savior and nailed him to the tree.” Unlike “He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word,” this spiritual leaves the singer with a feeling of hope and the assurance of everlasting life.
The text in stanza two includes Joseph of Arimathea: “Then Joseph begged his body and laid it in the tomb.” In all four canonical Gospels, Joseph is the man responsible for the burial of Jesus. According to John 19:38, upon hearing of Jesus’ death, Joseph asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.
Stanza three continues the story: “Sister Mary she came running, a-looking for my Lord.” In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the Resurrection. The Gospel of John names Mary as the one who discovered the empty tomb. John 20:16 and Mark 16:9 both acknowledge Jesus’ first post-Resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene, with no mention of others.
The conclusion to the story is in stanza four: “An angel came from heaven and rolled the stone away.” This is the moment of the Resurrection! According to Matthew 28:2, NRSV: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” The Gospel of Matthew is the only gospel that describes how the stone gets moved from the tomb of Jesus.
The hope of this spiritual is found in the refrain:
He rose, He rose, He rose from the dead!
He rose, He rose, He rose from the dead!
He rose, He rose, He rose from the dead,
And the Lord will bear my spirit home.
Jesus’ resurrection is the final say: there is no more suffering; no more oppression; no more defeat. I am able to go home, because death has no more power over me.
Carlton Young explains that William Farley Smith, who arranged the setting in The United Methodist Hymnal, provided the tune name, ASCENSIUS.
ASCENSIUS is a corruption of ascensus, meaning to climb or rise. As with the other spiritual settings in The United Methodist Hymnal, this is a choral piece to be taught to the choir and “caught” by the congregation. (Young, 1993, p. 393.)
As found in James Abbington’s Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, Portia Maultsby offers some insight in “The Use and Performance of Hymnody, Spirituals, and Gospels in the Black Church” from The Papers of The Hymn Society.
The musical norms and aesthetics that govern the singing of Black Americans are representative of a cultural value that places emphasis on free expression and group participation….Primary features which distinguish the Black spiritual tradition are: (1) the call-response structure; (2) extensive melodic ornamentation (slides, slurs, bends, moan, shouts, wails, grunts, etc.); (3) complex rhythmic structures; and (4) the integration of song and dance. Each of these elements is rooted in the principle of improvisation. (Abbington, 2001, p. 89)
The use of melodic ornamentation in the Black spiritual enables singers to employ a number of vocal techniques that add variety and intensity to performances. This intensity is increased by the layering of rhythmic hand clapping and foot-stomping patterns, which results in complex rhythmic structures. (Abbington, 2001, p. 90)
Maultsby has described what singing is like in the black church itself, not only the singing of spirituals. The performance practice of spirituals was retained, and it developed into the musical tradition found in black congregations today.
About this week’s writer:
Darnell St. Romain is the Associate Director of Liturgical Music at Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Plano, Texas. He serves as Treasurer for the Dallas Chapter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM).
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.