The Surprising Story of a Beloved Easter Hymn

Much like the carols of Christmas, music and Easter are synonymous with one another.

From Handel’s “Messiah” to Bach’s “St. John’s Passion,” the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection is punctuated in triumphant song – a tradition dating back to ancient times.

My musical tastes are best expressed in hymns – and I love no hymn more than the popular Easter anthem, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

Over 281 years later, the song still preaches. But it’s the uneven life of the hymn’s author that also inspires — giving us all hope, especially in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, that better days are coming, and sooner than we think.

Written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, an Englishman who wrote close to 9,000 hymns and is credited with helping start the Methodist Church, the song is not just melodic but also theologically magnificent.

“Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!” begins the third-verse. “Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia! Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia! Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!”

One would get the impression from the positivity of the lyrics that its author’s own theology and history were deeply rooted and unassailable, a belief that would be partly true but not entirely, and not by a long way.

Born a week before Christmas in 1707, Charles was the 18th of 19 children. Ten of his siblings never made it out of infancy and he, himself, barely escaped a fire that burned down the family home. It’s believed the blaze was intentionally set by his pastor father’s parishioners. Talk about a tough crowd.

His father’s detractors notwithstanding, Charles and his brother, John, were ordained and in 1735 sailed across the Atlantic as missionaries to present-day Georgia. John served as Savannah’s minister and Charles wound up on St. Simon’s Island where he was both a chaplain and the private secretary to the colony’s founder, General James E. Oglethorpe.

But Charles clashed with both Oglethorpe and the colonists over numerous issues, including theology. As a result, Wesley grew increasingly depressed and despondent and decided to return to England the next year.

Writing in his personal journal, Wesley struck a defeatist tone when he penned, “Life is bitterness to me.”

Once back home, though, the future hymnist began studying the writings of the German reformer Martin Luther and realized he had never really been converted to Christianity at all. Convinced and convicted, Charles Wesley committed his life to the Lord in 1738 – just a year before he would write his famous Easter hymn.

During my annual physical a few weeks ago, the doctor’s assistant asked me if I felt “hopelessness” or “a sense of impending doom.” Gratefully, I said no – but asked how many regularly express such sentiment?

“Four to five per week,” she said. “More since the onset of the pandemic.”

Sadly, “life is bitterness” to too many people – and perhaps even to yourself or people you know

Wesley’s story – and Easter’s promise – is that what you see isn’t all that is. Hang on. Hold tight. What’s now bitter will one day be sweet.

Good Friday’s sadness was replaced only three days later by Sunday’s “hallelujah’s” and “hosannas.”

The late ABC radio newsman Paul Harvey used to give what he called “not the best but the shortest Easter sermon you’ll hear” each year. It was one sentence: “Jesus lived the good life in a wicked world to show us it could be done – and He lived, and He died, and rose again to show us that we could do that, too.”

Harvey’s succinctness is echoed by Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, which aptly concludes, and which should give us all hope and confidence that no virus will ever hold back, “Made like Him, like Him we rise … Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.”

Photo from Shutterstock

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