Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

It was an unforgettable moment sitting in a Christian ethics class taught by Professor H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale Divinity School. At first I wondered if I had heard it correctly But it was a seminal statement that would be unfolding in my subsequent years as a believer and a theologian. His statement was “To be a Christian you must first become a Jew.” Beyond the shock of the moment, it speaks truth every time I open the Sacred Book joining the two testaments, or whenever I pray the Psalms or sing the Gloria Patri or the hymns of Easter.

Let’s test Niebuhr’s thesis by looking at three Easter hymns in the Covenant Hymnal and reflect together on the joining of the two traditions, the two stories and the two testaments.

Hymn 247 (verse 1) — Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain

Come, you faithful raise the strain of triumphant gladness
God has brought his people forth into joy from sadness.
Now rejoice, Jerusalem, and with true affection
welcome in unwearied strains Jesus’ resurrection.

The Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) makes the connections between the testaments clearer:

Hymn 363 — Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain

Come you faithful raise the strain of triumphant gladness!
God has brought Is-ra-el into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharoah’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters
led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.

The good news is that the God who brought Israel out of Egypt also brought Jesus out of the tomb. There are two stories–Exodus and Easter–by the one and the same God who looked upon suffering of his people, took notice and brought rescue.

Hymn 260 (verse 1) — The Day of Resurrection

The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad,
the Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth to heav’n on high,
Our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.

The Passover refers to the passing over of the angel of death on the homes of the Israelites with the blood on the door, It also speaks of the final meal eaten in haste before passing over the Red Sea “with unmoistened foot.” We sing with Miriam’s song of victory at the parting of the waters even as “Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.” Passover and Easter by one and the same God.

Hymn 556 — At the Lamb’s High Feast

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing praise to our victorious King, who has washed us in the tide flowing from his pierced side, Alleluia!

Praise we him, who love divine give us sacred blood for wine, gives his body for the feast–Christ the victim, Christ the priest. Alleluia!

Where the paschal blood is poured death’s dread angel sheathes the sword; Israel’s hosts triumphant go through the wave that drowns the foe. Alleluia!

Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed, paschal victim, paschal bread with sincerity and love eat we manna from above. Alleluia!

The Lutheran hymnal has three additional verses ending with a doxology:

Father, who the crown shall give,
Savior, by whose death we live,
Spirit, guide through all our days:
Three in One, your name we praise. Alleluia!

In the Covenant Hymnal this hymn is placed in the section on Communion hymns but it is also an Easter hymn. The Passover and Exodus themes are woven into the Easter victory and the Holy Supper where we receive and eat the manna from above. Passover and the Lamb’s feast, gifts of the one and the same God.

In the musical gifts of the Easter season, I would commend to you one of Johan Sebastian Bach’s earliest cantatas based on Luther’s hymn Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bonds Cantata 4 the text contains the similar themes as the hymns above with the Christus Victor motif. In Christ God has won the victory and those who know it are compelled to sing. With multiple voices each verse is sung.

There was a wondrous war between Life and Death.
Life won the victory and Death was swallowed up.
This was written in the scriptures how one Death consumed the other,
and thus made a mockery of Death. Hallelujah!

Here is the true Passover Lamb, God had commanded it.
High upon the cross’s shaft it has been roasted in ardent love.
The blood marks our doors, faith holds it before Death.
The evil one can no longer harm us. Hallelujah!

So we celebrate the high feast with heartfelt joy and delight.
That the Lord lets shine for us, He is himself the sun
Who through the splendor of His grace lights up our hearts completely,
The night of sin has disappeared. Hallelujah!

We eat and live well with the true unleavened bread of Easter.
The old leaven shall not be with the Word of grace.
Christ would be the meal and would feed the soul only,
Faith wants no other life. Hallelujah!

Two stories and one and the same God who brought Israel out of Egypt and Jesus out of the tomb. We belong to both stories and by them we are set free and wondrously fed. Alleluia!

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen Wiberg