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Easter Season in Song: “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands”

–By Elizabeth & Christopher Ahlman

The first Season in Song Easter hymn is “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (Lutheran Service Book, 458) and was chosen by Deaconess Elizabeth Ahlman, Communication Specialist for the Eurasia Region. Deaconess Ahlman is based out of Leipzig, Germany and assists in sharing the work that God is doing through the missionaries, workers, partner churches and projects in the region with the church at large.

This Luther hymn was recorded by the Brass Choir of St. Trinitatisgemeinde, Leipzig, Germany under the direction of The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany’s (SELK) Eastern District Kantor, Mr. Georg Mogwitz. The SELK is a partner church of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS)

"Lamentation over the Dead Christ" By Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).

“Lamentation over the Dead Christ” By Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).

1. Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands
For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand He stands
And brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us joyful be
And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of alleluia. Alleluia!

5. Here our true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree —
So strong His love — to save us.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us. Alleluia (LSB 458:1, 5).
In October of 2014, my husband Rev. Dr. Christopher Ahlman, traveled to Russia to proclaim the Gospel through various sacred music activities. In one activity, he worked with organ students at St. Petersburg State University, holding a masterclass for the students there. They were to bring a piece, play it, and he would speak with them about performance practice and more. One young lady brought a Bach Orgelbüchlein piece based upon the choral of this tune. She sat down at the organ and began to play it slowly, thoughtfully and without pulling many organ stops. It sounded like a funeral song.
After she finished playing through the piece, Dr. Ahlman began his reflection with a question to her:”During when in the liturgical year is this hymn played?” It immediately became rather clear that the extent of her knowledge for whatever reason, was drawn simply and exclusively from the title of the piece: Christ lag in Todesbanden / “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,” as she indicated that this piece would be most appropriately performed during the Lenten season or during Holy Week. After agreeing with her logic, Dr. Ahlman began to recite in English (with Russian translation interspersed) the entire first verse from memory, and then it became clear that a whole new world, so to speak, was opening for her. Dr. Ahlman confirmed for her that this was indeed the primary hymn for Easter Day, and that her performance, in so many ways, should ideally reflect that (i.e. a much faster tempo, a stronger combination of stops, a more aggressive articulation, and so on). As this was a masterclass aimed at learning and improvement in performance, all of this needed to be pointed out and tried out in the moment, which put the young lady a bit “on the spot” and made her a bit nervous, particularly as she was performing in front of her peers. She was rather bewildered, caught between disbelief and exhilaration, with some delight mixed in.
To be sure, the title certainly sounds like a Good Friday hymn. “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.” And if that’s all you have to go on, it’s a reasonable assumption. However, Luther is doing something masterful here. This hymn transitions us beautifully from the cross and the tomb, when our Lord Jesus did lay bound by death’s strong bands, to the resurrection, when He proved that those bands could no longer hold Him. The lines from stanza one which Chris had recited confirm this: “But now at God’s right hand He stands/ And brings us life from heaven. Therefore let us joyful be/ And sing to God right thankfully/ Loud songs of Alleluia!” And so, too, does this line from stanza 4: “The victory remained with life,/The reign of death was ended.” This is the glad news that Luther’s hymn trumpets forth: Out of death comes life. Out of darkness comes light. Christ Jesus has conquered our greatest enemy and it now can no longer harm us. His resurrection confirms and completes His victory.
Then, Luther transitions us to what this glorious death and resurrection really means: we can see that death’s sting is lost forever (stz. 4), therefore we see that death passes over us, and “Satan cannot harm us” (stz. 5). We keep the festival where Christ is the sun and warmth and wherein He “imparts eternal sunshine to our hearts” because “the night of death is ended” (stz. 6). We feast on this Christ, the bread of heaven, and He nourishes our souls and bodies with His very Body and Blood (stz. 7). Triumph out of what looked like defeat brings all these gifts to us.
So Dr. Ahlman instructed the student to play faster and pull more stops. Hesitantly, she tried, but it was still too slow and solemn. Dr. Ahlman sat down at the organ and pulled nearly every stop there was to pull. He played fast and loud and joyfully. The room of students and even the instructor was wide-eyed and shocked. Afterwards, the young lady approached Dr. Ahlman and admitted that she was “shocked,” but the tone of her voice and the confidence with which she spoke indicated that she was shocked in a good and helpful way. We too, at times, are wide-eyed with shock in a good way because of the great victory of our Lord and what it has done for us. So they heard about Good Friday’s purchase and they heard proclaimed the resurrection and all it brings for them. May all our Easter seasons be full of joy and wide-eyed shock and loud proclamation and brass choirs and swelling organs reminding us of the great victory of our Lord over sin, death and the devil for us!
Oh Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, we give thanks and praise to You for the gifts of life, forgiveness and victory over death. Grant that we may ever remember and rejoice in Your victory over the cross and tomb and bring us to our own resurrections on the Last Day; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
  • Each Wednesday throughout the season of Easter, we will have a devotion based on a hymn chosen by one of our missionaries, as well as an accompanying video, so be sure to check back in each week.

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