By Ed Sasnett
Long before I became a Christian, I had clear memories of Easter. I remember my sisters with new dresses in spring colors and me with new pants and a shirt. My mother would take us to church on Easter, and that must have been where the egg hunt happened. The church we occasionally attended had a great children’s church. A dedicated couple—the Johnsons,—taught us songs, did Bible drills and told us stories with puppets. But my understanding that Easter was the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus didn’t come from that or the pastor’s sermon. It was the hymns we sang that taught me what Easter was all about.
One of our Easter hymns was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” John Wesley authored the lyrics, but the composer of the tune is anonymous. When the hymn was first published in a Methodist hymnbook in 1780, something was missing from the hymn we recognize now—there were no alleluias. This is the hymn’s most distinctive feature. Apparently the lyrics didn’t quite fit the tune, so an unknown editor added the famous alleluias later. The word conveys emphatic joy, thanksgiving and triumph. I am so glad he did!
The song must have stuck in my childhood memory because it’s so celebrative. Every statement about the resurrection is interrupted with the worshiper shouting forth, “Praise the Lord.” For example, the first verse says:
Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!
Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, recorded that Christian houses of worship in the fourth and fifth centuries shook from the intense alleluias shouted by believers. For centuries Christians have greeted one another on Easter with: “Alleluia! He is risen! Alleuia! He is risen indeed!” I’ve read that Roman Catholics and Episcopalians refrain from speaking or singing alleluia during Lent, but they return to its use to express their thanksgiving on Easter morning.
Before Christ became my Savior and Lord, my theological knowledge as a child and youth was very elementary, but the church’s music had conveyed to me that there was something triumphant and joyous about Easter. It prepared me to accept the reality that the dead Jesus was now the risen Christ! Alleluia!