Our processional hymn on Easter Sunday — “Christ the Lord is risen today” — has been sung in one form or another for many centuries. The original Latin carol (Christmas is not the only feast with carols) comes to us from a 14th-century manuscript. It was first published in an English translation in 1708, a time when churches in England were just beginning to break away from the practice of only singing Psalms during worship. The tune to which we sing the hymn — known variously as EASTER HYMN, EASTER MORN, or SALISBURY — has been linked with this text since it first appeared in English in 1708.
The plentiful “Alleluias” that grace this hymn (they’ve been stored away since Ash Wednesday) also ornament the Introit, Offertory, and Communion propers from now until Pentecost. It’s as if the joy of the Resurrection can’t be contained.
Our Sequence hymn — “Christians, to the Paschal Victim” — is a translation of a text that dates to the early 11th century. The tune name — VICTIMAE PASCHALI — comes from the first two Latin words of the original, and the tune and text seem to have come from the same imagination. The Hymnal 1940 Companion informs us: “From this Easter sequence developed the first liturgical dramas and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. . . . As dramatized, it was performed before the Te Deum at Matins on Easter morning.”
Martin Luther based his chorale melody Christ lag in Todesbanden on this venerable melody. Next week we’ll sing this tune with an English translation of Luther’s hymn, “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands.” One of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas was based on Luther’s channelling of the 11th-century melody. Listen for that melody’s presence in each of the eight movements of this Easter cantata in the performance below, featuring the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It makes for a wonderful Easter afternoon meditation (the text can be found here).
Our short Sermon hymn (which does not guarantee a short sermon) is from one of the Greek Church Fathers, St. John of Damascus (c. 696-c.754). “Thou hallowed chosen morn of praise” was translated into English by John Mason Neale in 1862. The spritely tune — EISENACH — is by one of the great early Baroque German composers, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630). From 1616 until his death, he was cantor at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, where he was J. S. Bach’s most distinguished predecessor.
The Offertory anthem and Communion motet sung by the choir are both by a Tudor-era English composer Peter Philips (1560/61-1628). Philips is the most-published English composer of his generation after William Byrd. He left England in 1582, as he refused to convert to Catholicism, a decision which put his life in danger. He spent much of his working life in Italy and the Low Countries, and his musical style reflects the influence of other composers working in those regions. The text to Christus Resurgens (“Christ rising”) is from Romans 6:9-10: “Christ, rising again from the dead, dieth now no more. Death shall no more have dominion over him. For in that he died to sin, he died once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Alleluia!”
His Communion motet Ave verum corpus employs a text set by many other composers; our choir frequently sings the jewel-like setting by William Byrd.
Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
having truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
from whose pierced side
water and blood flowed:
Be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death!
O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus,
O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me.
In Philips’s hands, the mystery and wonder of the Eucharist shine forth.
Our Communion hymns are “Alleluia, sing to Jesus” and “At the Lamb’s high feast we sing.” As there is no separate page with information about this latter, a few words are in order here. The text is based on a 6th-century hymn, Ad coenam Agni providi (“The Lamb’s high banquet”), which had long been sung at Vespers during Eastertide. In the 16th century Pope Urban VIII supervised a revision of the Roman liturgy and this hymn (in Latin) was one of the texts revised. “At the Lamb’s high feast we sing” is based on the revised text. That’s a complicated history, which may be why the editors of our Hymnal identify the source of the hymn simply as “Latin.”
But it’s worth remembering the original 6th-century hymn, especially as it was translated by the great Anglo-Catholic scholar and priest John Mason Neale, and although it is no longer in liturgical use, it makes for rich Eastertide meditation.
1. The Lamb’s high banquet we await
in snow-white robes of royal state:
and now, the Red Sea’s channel past,
to Christ our Prince we sing at last.
2. Upon the Altar of the Cross
His Body hath redeemed our loss:
and tasting of his roseate Blood,
our life is hid with Him in God.
3. That Paschal Eve God’s arm was bared,
the devastating Angel spared:
by strength of hand our hosts went free
from Pharaoh’s ruthless tyranny.
4. Now Christ, our Paschal Lamb, is slain,
the Lamb of God that knows no stain,
the true Oblation offered here,
our own unleavened Bread sincere.
5. O Thou, from whom hell’s monarch flies,
O great, O very Sacrifice,
Thy captive people are set free,
and endless life restored in Thee.
6. For Christ, arising from the dead,
from conquered hell victorious sped,
and thrust the tyrant down to chains,
and Paradise for man regains.
7. We pray Thee, King with glory decked,
in this our Paschal joy, protect
from all that death would fain effect
Thy ransomed flock, Thine own elect.
8. To Thee who, dead, again dost live,
all glory Lord, Thy people give;
all glory, as is ever meet,
to Father and to Paraclete. Amen.