Where words fail, music speaks. Hans Christian Anderson
As we trek ever closer to the end of our blog series, we now come to the oldest of our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. The Day of Resurrection dates all the way back to 750 A.D. and is accredited to the pen of St. John of Damascus (676-780), who lived to a ripe old age of 104 years, giving us an amazing collection of writings and hymns that live on to this very day. Take a look at the power behind these ancient words:
The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.
Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.
Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.
To those who study hymns, today’s classic is classified as a Greek hymn and has been called by historians as one of the grandest examples of Greek sacred poetry ever written. Some call St. John’s celebratory text the “Golden Canon” or the “Queen of Canons,” yet for those of you who might not know too much about church history, it’s author comes to us representing a different portion of the Church than most of us here in the West are familiar with.
You see, long before the Reformation of the 1500’s, there was a major parting of ways in the ancient Church of Jesus Christ, resulting in what we now define as 1) the Western church (which encompasses both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout Europe, the Americas, and Australia/New Zealand); and 2) the Eastern church (which encompasses the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Church, and others).
There is certainly not enough time or space here to delve into the major differences behind these two major groupings within Christianity, but suffice to say that one of the early identifying marks of each group was the language used in teaching both the ancient Scriptures and other important aspects of worship such as hymns and early church writings. The Western church, based in Rome, established Latin as its primary language, while the Eastern church, based in Constantinople, kept Greek as its language of choice.
Most of the ancient hymns that remain in circulation today in our Western churches first came to us in Latin. Such an example is the magnificent hymn we looked at earlier in this blog series, All Glory, Laud, and Honor, accredited to Theodulf in 850 A.D. But St. John of Damascus’ The Day of Resurrection comes to us from the Eastern tradition of the Church, thus it was first written and sung in Greek.
But here’s an amazing fact to ponder. The truth is that today’s church would not be singing either one of these ancient hymns had it not been for the great hymnographer, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), who took it upon himself to personally translate and/or adapt dozens upon dozens of ancient and medieval hymns into modern English. Many church historians credit Dr. Neale as the driving force behind so much of what we now know about these men and women of faith who lived so long ago in societies so very different from our own. But before we close the book on today’s magnificent hymn, let me also share with you yet another gem Neale left for us to ponder on. You see, Dr. Neale not only translated the text of these ancient Latin and Greek hymns, he also did his very best to uncover the context in which these early songs were first sung. Read now what J.M. Neale wrote about the Greek settings surrounding the singing of today’s hymn, The Day of Resurrection…
As midnight approached, the archbishop, with his priests, accompanied by the king and queen, left the church and stationed themselves on the platform, which was raised considerably from the ground, so that they were distinctly seen by the people. Everyone now remained in breathless expectation, holding an unlighted taper in readiness when the glad moment should arrive, while the priests still continued murmuring their melancholy chant in a low half whisper. Suddenly a single report of a cannon announced that twelve o’clock had struck and that Easter Day had begun; then the old archbishop, elevating the cross, exclaimed in a loud, exulting tone, “Christos aneste!” “Christ is risen!” and instantly every single individual of all that host took up the cry…At that same moment the oppressive darkness was succeeded by a blaze of light from thousands of tapers which…seemed to send streams of fire in all directions.
My prayer: Father God, countless generations separate me from those who first sang these ancient hymns of the faith. But thank You, Father, that You have raised up visionaries like Dr. J.M. Neale and others who have taken it upon themselves to preserve these treasuries so that future generations can appreciate and sing along with these songs of old. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: What work might the Lord have for me in helping to preserve and defend the amazing treasures of faith left by past generations of Jesus-followers? How might a recovery and restoration of some of these ancient treasures bless my generation today?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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