History of Hymns: “The Day of Resurrection”
By C. Michael Hawn
The Day of Resurrection
by John of Damascus, Trans. by John Mason Neale
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 303
The day of resurrection!
Earth, tell it out abroad;
The passover of gladness,
The passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
From earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over,
With hymns of victory.
“The Day of Resurrection” explodes with Easter triumph! The original language is Greek. This is one of the few hymns that we sing with roots so deep in Christianity.
St. John Damascene, known also as John of Damascus, lived at the end of the seventh century and well into the eighth. Some suggest ca. 655 as the birth date, with the death date at 745; others estimate the death date to be 780, the latter suggesting that he might have lived to be over 100 years of age. His excellent literary and philosophical education in Damascus no doubt contributed to his renown as the author of liturgical hymns in Constantinople, the seat of eastern Christianity.
Tradition suggests that he was a monk at the St. Sabbas Monastery, known in Arabic as Mar Saba. This is a historically significant site overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between the Dead Sea and the Old City of Jerusalem. More recent scholarship by Greek scholar Vass Conticello places John of Damascus at Jerusalem Cathedral where he was the theological advisor of Patriarch John V of Jerusalem. Though most likely buried at St. Sabbas, his relics were moved to Constantinople at a later date.
There is no doubt, however, that John of Damascus was one of the most important hymnographers of the Byzantine (Eastern) Church. His name appears often in manuscripts, although not all the hymns attributed to him may have been his. It was a common practice during this time– and indeed for hundreds of years after this–to ascribe the name of a famous or acclaimed author (or even composer) to a work.
St. John of Damascus composed in one of three major forms of Christian poetry, the kanon, called by Dimitri Conomos, “The most important event in the history of Byzantine hymnody! ” (“Byzantine Hymnody,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, 2013; http://www.hymnology.co.uk/b/byzantine-hymnody). The kanon replaced earlier forms of hymnody that were linked to nine biblical canticles and expanded the complexity, variety of themes, and forms of hymns used in the liturgy to include major Christian festivals. St. John Damascene, the most accomplished composer of this form, wrote “Anastaseôs hêmera” as the kanon for Easter Day, translated later by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) as “The Day of Resurrection.” Neale was the great hymnologist of England’s Oxford Movement in the mid-nineteenth century. His translation first appeared in Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862) in the section, “The Second Epoch” of Greek Hymnody dating from 726-820.
This hymn and “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain” (UMH 315) were both written by the author as hymns from the “Golden Canon,” a series of Easter poems linking the mighty acts of God. The poetry of the Golden Canon, sometimes called the "Queen of Canons," is said to be the finest example of Greek sacred poetry.
In the Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal, Dr. Carlton Young compares the systematic development of Byzantine chant (kanon) by John of Damascus, the most important dogmatic theologian of the Eastern church, to the role played earlier by Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) in developing the Western chant tradition known as Gregorian Chant or plainsong (Young, 1993, 777).
John Mason Neale includes a description of a nineteenth-century observer of this ancient Easter liturgy, the most important festival of Christians, in which this hymn would have been sung:
As midnight approached, the archbishop, with his priests, accompanied by the King and Queen, left the Church and stationed themselves on the platform, which was raised considerably from the ground, so that they were distinctly seen by the people. Every one now remained in breathless expectation, holding unlighted tapers in readiness when the glad moment should arrive . . .. Suddenly, a single report of a cannon announced that twelve o'clock had struck and that Easter Day had begun; then the old Archbishop, elevating the cross, exclaimed in a loud, exulting tone, ‘Christos anesti!’ ‘Christ is risen!’ and instantly every single individual of all that host took up the cry. … At that same moment, the oppressive darkness was succeeded by a blaze of light from thousands of tapers which . . . seemed to send streams of fire in all directions . . .
Bands of music strike up their gayest strains. . . . and above the mingling of many sounds, . . . the aged priests were distinctly heard chanting forth the glorious old hymn of victory, ‘The day of resurrection/Earth, tell it out abroad.’ (Hymns of the Eastern Church, 1862, Sections 93-95; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/neale/easternhymns.edcanon.html)
Stanza one of “The Day of Resurrection” reminds us that Easter is the second Passover, the first Passover described in Exodus 12. Paul places the first Passover in the context of the suffering of Christ in I Corinthians 5:7, KJV: “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” The movement “from death to life eternal” is the paradigm for those being baptized during the Easter Vigil who are buried and rise with Christ in the baptismal waters.
Stanza two introduces the important theme of “resurrection light,” which is recalled by the description of the ancient Easter rite of the “blaze of light from thousands of tapers”– a symbol of life conquering death, goodness overcoming evil.
The cosmic antiphonal chorus begins stanza three. Throughout Christian hymnody, one may find the cosmic song beginning in heaven followed by earth’s response. Indeed, the Resurrection is a singular event of universal significance. The stanza continues with an allusion to the opening statement of belief in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” In the spirit of this creedal affirmation, John's great hymn concludes in eternal praise:
Let all things seen and unseen
Their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord has risen,
Our joy that hath no end.
The icon accompanying this article is a representation of St. John the Damascene composing a kanon for Easter.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.