History of Hymns: Pastor writes Easter hymn for a time of great turmoil
“Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing”
UM Hymnal, No. 318
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die. *
For those of us who recall the turbulent 1960s in the United States, the sounds of civil unrest reached the doors of many churches. No longer did some of the “old” hymns speak to us. For some, the language seemed antiquated and out of touch with reality. For others, the sounds of the organ masked the cries of pain of a suffering world and the stained-glass windows shielded the church from the realities that were taking place on the streets just on the other side of the sanctuary wall.
|C. Michael Hawn|
“Christ is Alive!” was written for Easter Sunday 1968. Just 10 days earlier, on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Brian Wren was faced on the one hand with the devastating news of the violent assassination of the leader of the non-violent movement for Civil Rights for African Americans, and on the other a responsibility to preach the good news of the resurrection.
Dr. Wren (b. 1936) was born and raised in Romford, Essex, England. His B.A. and Ph.D. degrees are from Oxford University. He was ordained in the United Reformed Church in Great Britain.
“Christ is Alive!” was originally titled, “The Crucified Lord.” Dr. Wren wrote it for Hockley and Hawkwell Congregational (now United Reformed) Church in Essex where he was serving as minister on that Easter Sunday. He notes that “I tried to express an Easter hope out of that terrible event, in words which could be more widely applied, and wrote ‘Christ is alive!’ because our available hymns spoke of Easter as a glorious event long ago, far away, and high above.”
Stanza one opens with a declarative and unequivocal statement: “Christ is alive!” This is not a historical observance, but the celebration of a current event. Following in the pattern of Easter hymns throughout the ages, we speak of the resurrection in the present tense.
For example, Charles Wesley wrote, “Christ the Lord is risen today!” Our response to this event is to sing. We sing this good news in response to the songs of praise coming from heaven. Singing requires full-body participation and commitment. Dr. Wren’s opening stanza captures the sense of a cosmic event.
In stanza two, Dr. Wren clarifies that the resurrection was not for one place and time historically, but for all places and all times—“he comes to claim the here and now and dwell in every place and time.”
Perhaps in response to the criticism of the church as remote from the needs and concerns of the world, Dr. Wren addresses this directly in stanza three: “Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains. . . .” This resurrected Christ has been with us in the “midst of life” yet paradoxically “in the God-head reigns” beyond this world.
Stanza four is the touchstone for the King assassination—the place where Dr. Wren brings the resurrection into contact with human suffering as expressed in racism, war, and all of the ways that we hurt and destroy our fellow human beings. This resurrected One “suffers still, yet loves the more” in the midst of the devastation that we bring upon each other.
The final stanza comes full circle and refocuses us on the “good news to this and every age.” The cosmic joining of heaven and earth is explicit here: “till earth and all creation ring. . . .” The cosmos rings with the fullness of the good news of “joy and justice, love and praise.”
Dr. Wren, now a citizen of the United States, is professor emeritus of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. He has published eight collections of his hymn texts and two additional collections with his wife Susan Heafield, a United Methodist minister.
Dr. Wren’s hymns appear in virtually every English language hymnal published since 1980. He serves the church universal in many capacities including a parish minister, hymn writer and lecturer.
A hymn is a work in progress for Brian Wren. As is his practice, he has made several revisions to “Christ is Alive!” including revisions made since it was published in the UM Hymnal in 1989, but the Easter message remains the same.
One of the four leading hymn writers from England who led the way in what has been called the “hymnic explosion” of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—and continues to this day—Dr. Wren carries a message that is often prophetic and jarring, leading some to call him the “sandpaper” of the hymn writers of his generation. While his message is disturbing at times, it is also hopeful. Christ is alive!