Christ came juggling from the tomb,
flipping and bouncing death’s stone pages,
tossing those narrow letters high
against the roots of dawn spread in cloud.
This Jesus, clown, came dancing
in the dust of Judea, each slapping step
a new blossom spiked with joy.
Hey! Listen—that chuckle in the dark,
that clean blast of laughter behind—
Christ comes juggling our tombs,
tossing them high and higher yet,
until they hit the sun and break open
and we fall out, dancing and juggling
our griefs like sizzling balls of light.
This poem is from Christographia by Eugene Warren (St. Louis, MO: The Cauldron Press, 1977), a chapbook of thirty-two numbered poems that “attempt to express personal views of, & perspectives on, Christ.”The book’s title comes from a series of sermons by the Puritan poet and preacher Edward Taylor.
Gene Warren Doty (1941–2015) was an American poet in the Anabaptist tradition who taught in the English department of Missouri S&T for forty-two years. Throughout his career he explored a variety of non-Western poetic forms, including haiku, renga, tanka, sijo, and ghazals. He is the author of seven books of poetry: Christographia, Rumors of Light, Geometries of Light, Fishing at Easter, Similitudes, Nose to Nose, and Zero: Thirty Ghazals. Until 1988 his books and poems were signed “Eugene Warren,” Warren being the surname of his adoptive father, George, who raised him; but from 1988 onward he used the surname of his biological father, Floyd Doty.
This early sixteenth-century poem by William Dunbar of Scotland—who served as poet in the court of King James IV and was also an ordained Catholic priest—is an imaginative retelling of the extrabiblical episode known as the Harrowing of Hell, wherein Christ descends to the realm of the dead on the eve of his resurrection to free the souls being held captive there by Satan.
The original poem, in Middle Scots, is reproduced below, followed by my translation into modern English, with the assistance of the Dictionary of the Scots Language. I’ve provided hyperlinks to Scots words that don’t have an obvious English correlative. The Latin refrain translates to “The Lord is risen from the grave.”
Done is a battell on the dragon blak, Our campioun Chryst confountet hes his force; The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak, The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce, The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce, The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go, Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer, The crewall serpent with the mortall stang, The auld kene tegir with his teith on char Quhilk in a wait hes lyne for us so lang, Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang: The mercifull lord wald nocht that it wer so, He maid him for to felye of that fang: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
He for our saik that sufferit to be slane And lyk a lamb in sacrifice wes dicht, Is lyk a lyone rissin up agane, And as a gyane raxit him on hicht: Sprungin is Aurora radius and bricht, On loft is gone the glorius Appollo, The blisfull day depairtit fro the nycht: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
The grit victour agane is rissin on hicht That for our querrell to the deth wes woundit; The sone that wox all paill now schynis bricht, And, dirknes clerit, our fayth is now refoundit: The knell of mercy fra the hevin is soundit, The Cristin ar deliverit of thair wo, The Jowis and thair errour ar confoundit: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
The fo is chasit, the battell is done ceis, The presone brokin, the jevellouris fleit and flemit, The weir is gon, confermit is the peis, The fetteris lowsit and the dungeoun temit, The ransoun maid, the presoneris redemit, The feild is win, ourcummin is the fo, Dispulit of the tresur that he yemit: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
Done is a battle on the dragon black, Our champion Christ has confounded his force; The gates of hell are broken with a crack, The sign triumphal raised (that is, the cross), The devils tremble with hideous voice, The souls are redeemed and to the bliss can go, Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
Beaten is the deadly dragon Lucifer, The cruel serpent with the mortal sting, The old sharp tiger with his teeth bared, Who in wait has lain for us so long, Thinking to grip us in his claws strong: The merciful Lord would not that it were so, He made him for to fail of that prize: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
He who for our sake allowed himself to be slain, And like a lamb in sacrifice was offered, Is like a lion risen up again, And like a giant raised himself on high: Risen is Aurora radiant and bright, Aloft is gone the glorious Apollo, The blissful day departed from the night: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
The great victor again is risen on high Who on our behalf to the death was wounded; The son that waxed all pale now shimmers bright, And, darkness cleared, our faith is now refounded. The knell of mercy from the heav’n is sounded, The Christians are delivered from their woe, The Jews and their error are confounded: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
The foe is chased, the battle is done, The prison broken, the jailers fled and banished, The war is gone, confirmèd is the peace, The fetters loosed and the dungeon emptied, The ransom made, the prisoners redeemed, The field is won, overcome is the foe, Despoiled of the treasure that he held: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
“Done Is a Battle” consists of five stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBC, DEDEECEC, and so on. (I wasn’t able to perfectly preserve this scheme in the translation.)
As was common in medieval European literature on the Resurrection, the poem portrays Christ as a heroic warrior who storms the gates of hell, freeing the souls imprisoned there by the Enemy—described here variously as a dragon, a serpent, and a tiger, who guards his stolen possession with ferocity. Carrying a cross as his battle standard and covered with his own blood, Jesus goes down into the beast’s lair to reclaim what is rightfully his.
The opening line is considered one of the finest of any poem: “Done is a battle on the dragon black.” Part of its power comes from the use of a literary device known as anastrophe—the inversion of the usual order of words in a sentence (usually subject-verb or adjective-noun). Dunbar uses it twice: “Done is the battle” instead of “The battle is done,” emphasizing finality rather than the conflict itself, and “dragon black” instead of “black dragon,” which gives more prominence to the creature than its color. “The battle is done on the black dragon” just doesn’t have the same ring. Anastrophe is used all throughout the poem (e.g., “sign triumphal,” “claws strong,” “confirmed is the peace”).
Cosmic and dramatic, the poem highlights the Christus Victor aspect of the atonement—that is, how Christ’s death and resurrection were a triumph over the powers of evil. Integrated into this model is the idea of ransom, redemption, emancipation.
While the Harrowing of Hell refers specifically to the salvation of those saints who died before Christ and were awaiting redemption in Sheol (aka Limbo, or Hades), it is representative of the act that Christ performs for all those who are in him—releasing us from Satan’s hold, bringing us out of the grave, letting us share eternally in the fruits of his victory in heaven. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the central icon of Easter is just such a scene: the risen Christ standing atop the broken-down doors of hell, pulling Adam and Eve and the other Old Testament faithful up from its pit. It’s called the Anastasis, Greek for “resurrection.”
Jesus conquered death by going through it. Stanza 3 describes the glory with which he rose from such a state. He died a sacrificial lamb, meek and lowly, but rose up like a lion—vigorous, strong. From the darkness of night, he rose like day—like Aurora, goddess of the dawn, or Apollo, god of the sun.
In the fourth stanza Dunbar uses a play on words that was particularly beloved in Middle English and Scots religious lyrics (and which still works in modern English): sun/Son. The sun/Son went dark at the Crucifixion (Luke 23:45) but reemerged brighter than ever on Easter morning, the dawn of a new day. Mercy sounds like bells from on high, and the world enters its liberation.
I don’t want to ignore the problematic nature of the penultimate line of this stanza: “The Jews and their error are confounded.” Their error was failing to see who Christ truly was and, because of that, calling for his execution. Attributing Jesus’s death to, broad brush, “the Jews” led to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution and violence in Europe. While the religious establishment of Jesus’s day certainly did play a driving role in his death, it’s important to remember that the Roman authorities were also key players; it was a collusion between synagogue and state. Both perceived Jesus as a threat, for different reasons. (And of course there’s a sense in which we all bear culpability, regardless of religious affiliation or time period, because it was for humanity’s sin that Christ went to the cross.) But casting blame is fruitless. Jesus died willingly. When I read old texts that charge all Jews across time and place with the crime of deicide, I can’t help but protest that it was also “the Jews” who stood by Jesus in the end—his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (members of the Sanhedrin!), John the Evangelist, and others—and who were among his closest followers. Not to mention that most of those whom Jesus “harrowed” from hell were Jewish! Across generations they trusted the promise given to them.
I alert you to this line so that if you use the poem in a worship context, you might consider a revision there (or at least a clarification), as the shorthand can cause confusion and breed prejudice. Though it doesn’t exactly honor Dunbar’s intent, I might suggest the following: “The people are delivered from their woe, / Resisters all most truly are confounded.”
Despite the undesirable generalization in line 31, I still believe “Done Is a Battle” is a poem worthy of our attention and engagement. It’s an exciting and culturally contextualized celebration of Christ the Dragon-Slayer, who “descended into hell,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, to save his people.
Try reading the Scots aloud! That way you can get a better sense of the musicality. I was surprised by how much of the language I was able to comprehend. Curious of its history, I discovered that most people claim, controversially, that Scots is not actually a separate language, but rather a dialect of English.
>> “Jesus Is Alive” by Ron Kenoly,performed in Japanese by Ruah Worship: Ruah Worship is a vocal ensemble made up of four siblings from Japan: (from left to right in video) Joshua Mine, Julia Mine, Erika Grace Izawa (née Mine), and Marian Mine. Here they sing an a cappella arrangement of a Ron Kenoly song, translated into Japanese by Hiromi Yamamoto and Kazuo Sano. Click on the “CC” (closed captioning) button for English subtitles. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Their harmonies are wonderful! And they have lots of great videos on their YouTube channel, a mix of original songs and songs translated from other languages or written in Japanese. For another Easter-themed song they’ve recorded, see “Because He Lives.”
>>“I Went to the Garden” by Sam Hargreaves: Written in a bluegrass style from Mary Magdalene’s perspective, this song was released this year as part of the Resurrection People resource from the UK organization Engage Worship, where you can find downloadable videos (songs, webinars), sheet music, and church service outlines that include prayers, all-age ideas, readings, poems, sermon outlines, responses, and more. Sam Hargreaves is on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Timo Scharnowski is on backing vocals and percussion, and David Hyde is on banjo and slide guitar.
ART COMMENTARY: The Sherborne Missal: On this episode of the BBC Radio 4 program Moving Pictures, host Cathy Fitzgerald talks with art historians Alixe Bovey, Kathleen Doyle, Eleanor Jackson, and Paul Binski and scribe and illuminator Patricia Lovett about a page from the medieval illuminated Sherborne Missal that introduces the Mass for Easter Sunday. Made for the Benedictine abbey of St. Mary’s in Sherborne, Dorset, around 1400, this Christian service book amazingly survived the pillaging of the English Reformation intact.
At the top is the historiated initial “R” for Ressurexit, with Christ emerging from his tomb. An elaborate border around the page contains scenes from the Old Testament, portraits of prophets, a bestiary-inspired scene, angels, birds, plants, fantastical knights, and two wodewoses (wild men) engaging in a bizarre confrontation. Such imagination! Learn why a daddy lion breathing on his cubs signified resurrection to the medieval mind, and in what sense Samson and Jonah are “types” of Christ.
“The thing to grasp about medieval art,” Binski says, “is that they don’t have the same categories and boundaries that we do. We have quite defined boundaries around what’s comic and what’s tragic, and what’s serious and what’s lightweight. In the Middle Ages, serious things and playful things accompanied one another; they were all part of the same thing.”
CALL FOR ENTRIES:Chaiya Art Awards 2022/23: Submissions are now open—UK residents only—for this biannual competition on spiritually inflected visual art, this time on the theme of “Awe and Wonder.” In addition to the usual exhibition space for the longlisted finalists at London’s gallery@oxo, Chaiya has secured a second venue, the Bargehouse, which will allow for larger-scale artworks and installations. The top prize is ₤10,000. Deadline: August 31, 2022.
CIVA TRAVELING EXHIBITION: Heads, Faces, and Spiritual Encounter: Drawn from the collection of Edward and Diane Knippers and available for rental, this exhibition comprises forty-some artworks that all focus on the human face. There are works by modern heavyweights like Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Georges Rouault, and Eric Gill, along with a few seventeenth-century portraits, African masks, and works by contemporary artists of faith. I saw the exhibition in Austin, Texas, in November and was really moved. Click on the link to browse the art and to inquire about rental.
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness . . .
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
In Easter light, the risen Christ is moving among us. How brightly the meadowlark sings its song of the season. Alleluia. How gently the Easter light lifts the face of the lily. Christ is risen. With illumed heart and radiant faces, we too sing in that light. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Let Christ be rising now in our lives and in our prayers, as we open our hands to both friend and stranger. Let Christ be rising now in our words and in our work as we strive to repair the earth and free all its creatures from danger.
Risen Christ of limitless love, Risen Christ of compassion and peace, Risen Christ of gracious surprising— You move among us in Easter light. Be now in us, rising.
I so love Angier Brock’s collaborations with Cecilia McDowall. I featured another of their choral anthems, “Advent Moon,” two Advents ago.
“Easter Light” is quieter and more reflective than most other Easter anthems. It muses on how, as the natural world awakens to the fullness of spring, our hearts are beckoned to come awake also. Christ rose from his grave in first-century Palestine and he rises in his followers, moving us to love, compassion, peace, generosity, and works of repair and liberation. This anthem is a blessing and a prayer—that we would be reanimated, reastonished, by the “risen Christ of gracious surprising”; that we would be Easter people, people of life and light, practicing resurrection.
The text above is as Brock wrote it. She gave McDowall the leeway to rearrange the order of lines, to repeat and layer words, and so on. Brock told me how pleased she is by how McDowall set the alleluias. “I think of them as ‘falling alleluias’ or ‘waterfalls of alleluias,’” she said.
In addition to being a sacred lyricist, Brock is also a poet. I asked her if she approaches differently the task of writing a poem that she knows will be set to music for church contexts versus writing a poem that does not have that objective. Here’s what she said:
For me, the biggest difference between writing a hymn or anthem text, as opposed to a freestanding poem, is that with the hymn or anthem, I know I will quite literally be putting words into other peoples’ mouths. And not just any words—words about faith, about the Holy, the Divine. Theology figures in—not my personal or private theology, but something larger. That adds a layer of—I’m not sure what the word is. Complexity? Responsibility? Gravitas? Something like one of those things, or some combination thereof.
The above recording is of a performance by the collegiate Oxford Choir, but for examples of church choirs singing “Easter Light” for Easter Day worship services, see the following timestamped video links:
This concludes my *daily* posts in this format—but there are still another forty-two days of Easter, and I hope you’re continuing to celebrate! I’ll still be sharing content throughout the remainder of the season, just at a lesser frequency. In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist, which includes today’s featured song.
Hallelujah, we will rise again Angels rolled the stone away The Lord has raised his Son Victory is won He’s gonna call us from the grave
I want to walk in your kingdom (Give me back my feet!) I want to walk in your kingdom (Roll that stone away from me!) I want to clap my hands in glory (Give me back my hands!) I want to clap my hands in glory (Roll that stone away from me!)
I want to walk in your kingdom (Give me back my feet!) I want to walk in your kingdom (Roll that stone away from me!) I want to stomp my feet in glory (Give me back my feet!) I want to stomp my feet in glory (Roll that stone away from me!)
I want to sing in your kingdom (Give me back my throat!) I want to sing in your kingdom (Roll that stone away from me!) I want to shout in glory (Give me back my throat!) I want to shout out in glory (Roll that stone away from me!)
This gospel song by Ben Keyes is sung from the perspective of the faithful departed—those siblings in Christ who have passed on but who are awaiting their own bodily resurrection on the last day. Although in this world our bodies decay and we return to dust, one day we will be reconstituted and raised, and we will join with saints from all over the globe in praise of Christ our Savior in the new heavens and the new earth. In Keyes’s song, the deceased anticipate that joyful reuniting of body and soul, and the eternal ingathering of the universal church. They appeal to God to give them back their vocal cords so that they can sing and shout; their feet, so they can move about and dance; their hands, so they can clap and serve.
Ben Keyes is the codirector, with his wife Nickaela Fiore-Keyes, of the Southborough L’Abri branch in Massachusetts. Founded by Edith and Francis Schaeffer, L’Abri (French for “shelter”) is an international network of communities that integrate study and discussion about God and life with practical community work. These “shelters” house both short-term guests and long-term residents. They are not a retreat, a commune, or a seminary, but they incorporate elements of all three.
Keyes grew up at the Southborough L’Abri and from an early age has loved to play music. When he was in high school his family joined an African American church and he became involved in the music ministry, learning how to play gospel piano and bass guitar. He went on to study ethnomusicology at Brown University, exploring the beauties of old-time music, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and traditional Irish music.
From 2005 to 2007 Keyes studied theology and the arts at Regent College in Vancouver, where he earned a master’s degree. He directed a large gospel choir as part of his final thesis project—which you can get a taste of from his excellent album Were You There? Are You Here?, whose finale is “We Will Rise Again.” All the songs are by Keyes, and the choir is made up of grad students from Regent and the University of British Columbia.
At Regent Keyes met Peter La Grand and Jill McFadden, fellow classmates, and the three of them formed Ordinary Time, a folk acoustic trio rooted in the Christian tradition. They sing both original songs and arrangements of old hymns and have five full-length albums to date—with another coming out in 2023! Here they are singing Keyes’s “We Will Rise Again” from their remote locations (Southborough, Vancouver, Baltimore) in 2020, using the Acapella app:
LOOK: Ballet Skirt or Electric Light by Georgia O’Keeffe
The Art Institute of Chicago, which owns this painting, offers the following description:
In the 1920s Georgia O’Keeffe began creating the paintings of enlarged flowers for which she is most famous, including a series of works devoted to the white rose; this painting is her most abstracted depiction of the subject. O’Keeffe simplified the energy of the blooming rose to its essence, so that it resembles a brilliant light radiating out of flat Cubist planes. She exhibited this painting as White Rose—Abstraction at Alfred Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery in 1928 and retitled it Ballet Skirt or Electric Light (from the White Rose Motif) when she lent it to the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1943 retrospective of her work.
I was introduced to this painting in Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, volume 3, where it appears in the Easter section. So credit goes to that book’s editors (Susan A. Blain, et al.) for linking the image with Christ’s resurrection. Now I can’t see it any other way! Bright and explosive, the painting has as its focal point an orb of light near the bottom edge, which could be read as the figure of Christ standing in the open mouth of the tomb.
By the way, all three Imaging the Word volumes, which I chanced upon at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet some years ago, are excellent. Structured around the Revised Common Lectionary, years A through C, the books integrate scripture, visual art, poetry, sheet music, liturgies, fiction excerpts, quotes from Bible commentaries and spiritual nonfiction, and more. They are published by United Church Press.
LISTEN: “Aurora lucis rutilat” (Light’s Glittering Morn Bedecks the Sky) | Words attributed to Ambrose, 4th century; translated into English by John Mason Neale, 1851 | Music by Orlande de Lassus, ca. 1592, published posthumously in 1604 | Performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, dir. Graham Ross, 2015
1. Aurora lucis rutilat,
caelum laudibus intonat,
mundus exultans iubilat,
gemens infernus ululat,
2. Cum rex ille fortissimus,
mortis confractis viribus,
pede conculcans tartara
solvit catena miseros!
3. Ille, qui clausus lapide
custoditur sub milite,
triumphans pompa nobile
victor surgit de funere.
4. Solutis iam gemitibus
et inferni doloribus,
“Quia surrexit Dominus!”
resplendens clamat angelus.
5. Tristes erant apostoli
de nece sui Domini,
quem poena mortis crudeli
servi damnarant impii.
6. Sermone blando angelus
“In Galilaea Dominus
videndus est quantocius”
7. Illae dum pergunt concite
apostolis hoc dicere,
videntes eum vivere
osculant pedes Domini.
8. Quo agnito discipuli
in Galilaeam propere
pergunt videre faciem
9. Claro paschali gaudio
sol mundo nitet radio,
cum Christum iam apostoli
visu cernunt corporeo.
10. Ostensa sibi vulnera
in Christi carne fulgida,
voce fatentur publica.
11. Rex Christe clementissime,
tu corda nostra posside,
ut tibi laudes debitas
reddamus omni tempore!
12. Deo patri sit gloria
eiusque soli filio
cum spiritu paraclito
et nunc et in perpetuum.
Light’s glitt’ring morn bedecks the sky,
heav’n thunders forth its victor cry,
the glad earth shouts its triumph high,
and groaning hell makes wild reply.
While he, the King of glorious might,
treads down death’s strength in death’s despite,
and trampling hell by victor’s right,
brings forth his sleeping saints to light.
Fast barred beneath the stone of late
in watch and ward where soldiers wait,
now shining in triumphant state,
he rises Victor from death’s gate.
Hell’s pains are loosed and tears are fled;
captivity is captive led;
the angel, crowned with light, hath said,
“The Lord is risen from the dead.”
The apostles’ hearts were full of pain
for their dear Lord so lately slain:
that Lord his servants’ wicked train
with bitter scorn had dared arraign.
With gentle voice the angel gave
the women tidings at the grave;
“Forthwith your Master shall ye see:
he goes before to Galilee.”
And while with fear and joy they pressed
to tell these tidings to the rest,
their Lord, their living Lord, they meet,
and see his form, and kiss his feet.
The Eleven, when they hear, with speed
to Galilee forthwith proceed:
that there they may behold once more
the Lord’s dear face, as oft before.
In this our bright and Paschal day,
the sun shines out with purer ray,
when Christ, to earthly sight made plain,
the glad apostles see again.
The wounds, the riven wounds he shows
in that his flesh with light that glows,
in loud accord both far and nigh
the Lord’s arising testify.
O Christ, the King who lov’st to bless,
do thou our hearts and souls possess:
to thee our praise, that we may pay
to whom our laud is due for aye.
Orlande de Lassus’s setting of “Aurora lucis rutilat” is a motet for ten voices. Graham Ross describes the piece in the BBC Music Magazine article “The best choral music for Easter”:
A setting of an anonymous 4th century text – the Hymn for Lauds on Easter Sunday – Lassus’s motet begins by tenderly depicting the dawn of Easter morning, but soon leads to a double-choir celebration of the triumph of the resurrection, full of word-painting, jubilation and a brief triple-time passage proclaiming the joy of Easter day (‘in hoc pascali gaudio’). Written late in Lassus’s life, the work is a unique example in the Franco-Flemish composer’s output of Venetian polychoral technique, with harmonic completeness in each choir.
The hymn exists in several different English translations and variations and has been set to music by multiple composers or paired with preexisting hymn tunes. For example, I’ve heard it sung to LASST UNS ERFREUEN, a tune from seventeenth-century Germany that today is most associated with the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.” In this case, “alleluias” and other short acclamations are added to the verses.
If you want to use this hymn for congregational singing, I would recommend the following version (with LASST UNS ERFREUEN), which I cobbled together from a few different sources (including the Jubilate Hymns version and the Liturgy Fellowship Facebook group) but which draws heavily on Neale’s translation:
Light’s glittering morning fills the sky, heav’n thunders forth its victor cry: Christ is risen! Alleluia! The glad earth shouts its triumph high and groaning hell makes wild reply. Christ is risen! O praise him! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
For Christ the Lord, the mighty King, despoils death and draws its sting. Christ is risen! Alleluia! He tramples down the pow’rs of night, brings forth his ransomed saints to light. Christ is risen! O praise him! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
His rocky tomb the threefold guard of watch and stone and seal had barred. Alleluia, alleluia! But shining now in glorious state, he rises Victor from death’s gate. Christ is risen! O praise him! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Hell’s pains are loosed and tears are fled; captivity is captive led. Alleluia, alleluia! “Weep not!” an angel voice has said. “The Lord is risen from the dead!” O praise him, O praise him! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
All praise be thine, O risen Lord, from death to endless life restored; Christ is risen! Alleluia! To Father, Son, and Spirit be all pow’r and praise eternally! Christ is risen! O praise him! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
How did Jesus’s mother, Mary, come to find out that he had risen from the dead? Was she there when it happened, keeping vigil? Was she among the holy women at the tomb to whom the angel made the announcement, or did these women go to Mary to relay the news to her? Maybe an angel came to tell her personally? Or perhaps Jesus himself appeared to her, to tell and show, at the home where she was staying.
The Bible is silent as to Mary’s whereabouts between the time of Entombment and the events of Easter morning. Historically, there have been proponents of each of the above suppositions. But the one that has taken the strongest hold is the last one—that Jesus made direct personal contact with his mom after his resurrection, before appearing to anyone else. He wasn’t at the tomb when Mary Magdalene got there (unless, perhaps, he was lingering somewhere in the shadows). Where did he go in the early morning? Some scholars say he must have gone to console his mother.
The claim that Jesus appeared first to Mother Mary can be found as far back as Ambrose (340–397), who wrote in his De virginitate, “Therefore Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord: she saw it first and believed.”
Around 1300 the anonymous writer known as Pseudo-Bonaventure elaborated on this tradition in his highly influential Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ), providing a vivid and affecting narrative in which Mary, when the women depart for the tomb on Sunday morning, stays behind and prays for God to restore her son to her alive.
And with that, she so praying, sweet tears shedding, lo suddenly our Lord Jesus came and appeared to her, and in all white clothes, with a glad and lovely cheer, greeting her in these words: “Hail, holy mother.” And anon she turning said: “Art thou Jesus, my blessed son?” And therewith she kneeling down honored him; and he also kneeling beside her said: “My dear mother, I am. I have risen, and lo, I am with you.” And then both rising up kissed the other; and she with unspeakable joy clasped him, sadly, resting all upon him, and he gladly bare her up and sustained her. [as translated into Middle English by Nicholas Love in The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ca. 1400, with modernized spellings]
But I want to take a look at this Italian Baroque bas-relief by the minor artist Giovanni Pietro Lasagna.
LOOK: Christ Appearing to His Mother by Giovanni Pietro Lasagna
I found this artwork in the blog article “Iconography of the Resurrection – Christ Appears to His Mother” by Margaret Duffy, which provides a fascinating compilation of images. Duffy cites its location as unknown, and I’ve not been able to find reference to it anywhere else. It was probably made in Milan, where the artist was active. An email inquiry I sent last month to the city’s Museo del Duomo, which has similar terracottas from the same period in its collection, has garnered no reply. It’s possible the work was made as a design for a marble sculpture.
Carved in low relief in the background, an angel sits on the edge of an empty sarcophagus and tells the three women with their ointment jars that Jesus is not here but is risen. Three untenanted crosses are visible in the distance on Mount Calvary, a shadow of Friday’s events.
In the foreground, sculpted in high relief, we see Mary at her prayer desk. She is interrupted by the triumphant entry of her risen son, attended by angels. Their arms reach out to embrace each other as her grief turns to joy.
To reinforce the news of resurrection, an angel who stands behind Mary peeks out from behind a curtained doorway and points to the concurrent scene that’s unfolding in the garden of Jesus’s burial.
I’m not certain of the identity of the figures behind Jesus. But in looking into it, I did find that there’s a legend, likely originating in fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Spain, that when Jesus appeared to his mother after the resurrection, he presented to her the redeemed of the Old Testament, whom he had just freed from Hades.* So it’s possible that the beardless young man at the upper left with his arms crossed over his chest is Adam, and that the figure at the right with one breast bared is Eve. And I think the man at the top right corner who’s touching them both is an angel.
Note the iconographic similarity to scenes of the Annunciation—Gabriel’s announcement to the young Mary that she had been chosen by God to bear his Son. This “emphasizes the parallelism between the heralding of the Incarnation by the Archangel, and Christ’s own announcement, to his mother, of the fulfillment of that Incarnation, that is, the Resurrection.”**
Be joyful, Mary, heav’nly queen Gaude, Maria! Your son who died was living seen Alleluia!
Laetare, O Maria O Maria
The son you bore by heaven’s grace Gaude, Maria! Did all our guilt and sin efface Alleluia!
Laetare, O Maria O Maria
The Lord has risen from the dead Gaude, Maria! He rose with might as he had said Alleluia!
Laetare, O Maria O Maria
This song has its roots in a medieval liturgical text that is still used as an antiphon (short hymn) in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Easter season. Gaude means “rejoice”; laetare, “be glad.”
The lyrics could be in the voice of the women who went early to the tomb and are returning with the great news, or it could be that we the faithful are imaginatively addressing Mary across time, inserting ourselves into that story of the first Easter morning.
You dragged me
Through the gates of pain
Love from my heart
Reason, like Lucifer’s sin,
Burst away and fled.
Now the freer motion
Over the fertile ground
“Release” by Joseph Kariuki is from Poems from East Africa, ed. David Cook and David Rubadiri (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1971). Used by permission of the publisher.
Joseph E. Kariuki was born in 1931 in Banana Hill, Kenya. After receiving a BA from Makerere College in Uganda and further education at Cambridge University in England, he pursued a career in public administration, working with United Nations organizations in East and North Africa. He also wrote poetry, though less so after his appointment as director-general of the African Training and Research Centre in Administration for Development (CAFRAD) in 1969. His most famous poem is “Ode for Mzee” (1965), written to commemorate Jomo Kenyatta on the occasion of his becoming president of Kenya.
“The tomb is empty!” So declares the angel in the far-left panel of this Easter quadriptych by Tanja Butler, an artist from New England. The angel gestures toward Jesus’s bare and open coffin and his cast-aside graveclothes, telling the women (out of frame) that “he has been raised, as he said” (Matt. 28:6).
The second panel shows Jesus trampling down the gates of hell (the doors laid across each other in an X-shape references traditional iconography of Christ’s descent into Hades). He has defeated death, as indicated by the skull under his feet. A rainbow, symbol of God’s promise, arcs across the scene. Shaped in blessing and communicating doctrinal truths, the fingers on his right hand form the letters IC XC, the first and the last letters of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, “Jesus Christ.” His five wounds—on wrists, feet, and side—are still present on his resurrected body, but they have been transfigured.
The third panel shows the resurrected Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden of his burial. With one hand he reaches out to reassure her, but with the other he reminds her that he will be ascending soon, and so not to cling to him (Noli me tangere, as this scene is traditionally named). I believe that the twisting object that seems to proceed from Mary’s mouth and exits the garden gate is a speech scroll, suggesting that she is proclaiming the gospel; “apostle to the apostles,” she is tasked with delivering the news of resurrection to the Eleven. But with its riverine shape, it also reminds me of Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman at the well: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
(Update, 4/20/22: Butler tells me she had in mind the release of the Holy Spirit, breaking through walls and barriers.)
In the far-right scene, the angel who had been guarding paradise with a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24) has put down his sword and now invites us to enter. The sentry has become a porter! He gestures toward the doorway that Christ’s death and resurrection has opened for us. The fall has been undone. We are welcomed home.
“Tanja Butler (b. 1955) was born in Germany and moved to the United States as a young girl. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Albany. Her artistic practice has focused on liturgical art, illustration, and community service projects. She is inspired by Byzantine icons, American and European folk art, Persian manuscripts and textile patterns, African art, Early Christian art, Russian Suprematist paintings, Cubism and Fauvist color. Informed by studies in art history and time working in Italy, she was particularly influenced by the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Her collection of 600 graphic images, Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, was published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Her work is included in the collections of the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art; the Billy Graham Center Museum at Wheaton; the Boston Public Library; the DeCordova Museum; and the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, UCLA. In 2014 she retired from her position as an associate professor of art at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where she taught painting, drawing, liturgical art, and illustration and frequently integrated service opportunities in her courses.” [source]
1. Pourquoi, parmi les morts, chercher les vivants? Jésus est ressuscité! Comme la lumière du soleil levant, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
2. Que la terre entière sache la vérité Jésus est ressuscité! Comme la vie nouvelle qu’il nous a donnée, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
3. L’ennemi est vaincu, il est terrassé, Jésus est ressuscité! À lui la victoire, nous sommes libérés, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
4. Nous voyons sa gloire dans tout l’univers. Jésus est ressuscité! L’image parfaite du Dieu notre Père, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
5. Acclamons Jésus, il a vaincu la mort! Jésus est ressuscité! Dansons et chantons, car il est le plus fort, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
6. Pourquoi, parmi les morts, chercher les vivants? Jésus est ressuscité! Comme la lumière du soleil levant, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
1. Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is risen! Like the light of the rising sun, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
2. Let the whole earth know the truth: Jesus is risen! Like the new life he gave us, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
3. The enemy is defeated, he is struck down, Jesus is risen! To him the victory, we are freed, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
4. We see his glory throughout the universe. Jesus is risen! The perfect image of God our Father, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
5. Let us acclaim Jesus, he conquered death! Jesus is risen! Let’s dance and sing, because he is the strongest, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
6. Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is risen! Like the light of the rising sun, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
Born and raised in South Africa, singer-songwriter Pat Berning moved to southern France with his wife Linda in 1988, following a call they felt while working for the international ministry Youth for Christ. Though he didn’t know the language at the time, now he sings and records primarily in French, and occasionally in English or Zulu.
His live performance above of his original song “Jésus est ressuscité” is from the Christian arts festival Psalmodia Gagnières—sometime in the early to mid-2000s. The album version uses male and female singers and has call-and-response elements. “Jesus is risen!” the refrain goes. Such a fun and celebratory song.
The hip-hop dancer in the video is Sodapop. He and his wife, Christine Jeanville (a classical and contemporary dancer), founded Machol Danser la Vie in 2005, named after the man in 1 Kings 4:31 whose name means “dancing.” The ministry organizes workshops that promote healing, empowerment, and connection with others and God through dance. And in 2018 they opened the Ecole de Formation sur l’ Identité et la Louange par le Mouvement (Training School on Identity and Worship through Movement).
Easter Sunday is the most joyful day of the Christian year, kicking off a fifty-day season of feasting and celebration centered on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While we celebrate the resurrection year-round (every Sunday is a “little Easter”), the liturgical calendar gives us this set-apart time to linger with and savor the mystery with particular focus and renewed fervor. Christ’s rising from the grave has far-reaching implications, which the church unpacks, most especially during Eastertide, through its liturgies, scripture readings, sermons—and music.
I compiled a Spotify playlist of songs and other musical pieces for this festal season—a mix of classical, gospel, choral, folk, and indie-pop, with some jazz and bluegrass. These selections span historical periods and geographic locales, ranging from early medieval hymns and liturgical refrains to newer releases, from Senegal, Tanzania, Chile, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (in Ontario), Serbia, Hungary, Germany, Ireland, France, the Middle East, and more.
You’ll find plenty of classic texts and tunes, some retunes and new arrangements of the classics and other oldies, and some through-and-through originals. And lots of Alleluias!
Sung in Byzantine-rite churches, the Paschal troparion—“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life”—is represented here by a few different settings in a few different languages, including Georgian (“Krist’e Aghsdga”) and Greek (“Hristos Anesti”). Church of the Apostles does a version in English that works well with a contemporary worship band.
The medieval French melody known as NOEL NOUVELET is often paired with two different Easter hymn texts, both of which I’m very fond of: “Welcome, Happy Morning!” by Venantius Fortunatus, a sixth-century hymnographer in the Merovingian court and later bishop of Poitiers, and the early twentieth-century “Now the Green Blade Riseth” by J. M. C. Crum, which has this wonderfully poetic refrain: “Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.” Claire Holley [previously] recorded a subdued, guitar-picked rendition of the latter, and for the former, here’s Redeemer Knoxville’s [previously] super-fun arrangement, which includes mandolins, trumpets, and a raucous energy!
Christ’s death and resurrection initiated a new exodus, so to speak, so some of the songs, like “Carol of the Exodus” [previously] and “Mary, Don’t You Weep” [previously] use the language of Pharaoh’s armies (i.e., agents of death) being overthrown, and liberation.
Also included on the list is a Swahili praise song whose key phrase, “Yesu ni wangu, wa uzima wamilele,” translates to “Jesus is mine, he is (the God of) everlasting life.” Some English versions of the song translate it as “Jesus is mine, he’s alive and he’s eternal.”
Classical selections include the Sinfonia (instrumental opening) of Bach’s Easter Oratorio; “Dum transisset Sabbatum” (When the Sabbath Was Past), a Renaissance motet setting of Mark 16:1–2 by John Taverner; a movement from a piano sonata by modern Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara inspired by the icon of the holy women at the tomb; and a movement from a violin sonata by Austrian Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.
The latter two are among the several allusive instrumental pieces on the list, which also include “Viriditas” on jazz guitar by Charlie Rauh (its title references Hildegard of Bingen’s concept of greening, freshness, new life) and “Phoenix” on oud by Egyptian Australian virtuoso Joseph Tawadros (the phoenix is a mythological bird that dies and rises again, which the medieval church embraced as a symbol of Christ).
Two gems I discovered while searching for Easter music are settings of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Easter”: one a Celtic-influenced choral setting by Steven C. Warner, the other an alt-rock version by Jon Green (JG Hymns):
A popular Easter song in Spanish-speaking churches throughout the world is “Resucitó” (He Is Risen) by Kiko Argüello:
There are a few songs here written for kids, like “Jesus Is Alive” by Rain for Roots and “Risen Today” by John Burland, but which I find enjoyable myself!
And there are a handful of songs by James Ward [previously], a gospel songwriter and pianist from New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee—such as “Morning Sun,” which is included in the Trinity Hymnal:
For a closer, I chose “Love Divine, Victorious,” written by Karl Digerness and arranged by Minna Choi, musicians at City Church San Francisco [previously]. I love its blend of classical and folk-rock styles, with an orchestra interacting with a banjo and drum kit. (The album recording has a full orchestra and a choir; the video below is a pared-down version from last year, with string orchestra and two vocalists.) The song looks back in remembrance and forward in anticipation, quoting the traditional memorial acclamation “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
To listen to all 130-plus songs on Spotify, open the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.” Then the list will be easily accessible to you throughout the season and will reflect any new song additions I make.