Every year I struggle with Easter. Not the idea that a sacred sacrifice was made and that hope emerges from the aftermath of that act. Not the desire to celebrate this hope – to celebrate that it is possible to renew and rejuvenate after the harsh realities of life bring us almost to the end of things. Not the descriptions of love unimaginable presented at this time of the liturgical calendar and the idea that we are worth so very much. I struggle with the language of victory. With the notion that a battle has been won. I struggle with using the same language we use to describe the winning of a war, or the supremacy of one group over another, or the conquest of something, as being reflective of our understanding of God. As I consider the story of this selfless act of sacrifice, love and compassion, I find myself wondering why religious tradition has made it one of conquest, rather than one of supreme humility and compassion? Symbolic of what can be given, rather than representing what can be won.
Consequently, selecting Easter hymns has always been challenging. I know many find these hymns inspiring, perhaps I’m in the minority on this one, but all the triumph, overthrowing, ruling, conquering, destruction, hailing and reigning, sometimes leave me feeling a bit out of sorts. There are many Easter hymns I love, and sing or play with gusto. Those that are full of joyful alleluias. But there are many that sound like a battle cry, and give me pause.
That Easter day with joy was bright:
the sun shone out with fairer light,
when to their longing eyes restored,
the apostles saw their risen Lord.
O Jesus, King of gentleness,
with constant love our hearts possess.
To you our lips will ever raise
the tribute of our grateful praise.
All praise, O risen Lord, we give
To you, once dead, but now alive!
To God the Father equal praise,
and God the Holy Ghost, we raise.
This hymn is not one that we sing very often, or ever, but I like how the words describe a gentle Jesus, and a bright joy, constant love and praise that is filled with gratitude. It is a very old hymn, the music from 1568, the words from the 4th– 5thcentury (translated in 1851). It is the third part of a Latin text that describes the Apostles’ experience of the death and resurrection of Christ. The depths of sorrow, the pain of burying their friend, and the joy of seeing his beloved face again. And the realisation that they had been blessed.
Perhaps it is this element of being blessed by the gentleness of Christ that speaks to me much more than thinking of him as a great warrior. It feels less like something that wants to be displayed as a trophy, for all to see and admire, than an example of how I might treat those around me. It requires me to consider how my life can reflect this generosity and compassion, rather than encouraging a sense of superiority that must be imposed on others – because the victors in a battle always seem to want to assimilate the conquered, and while I understand the conquered in this situation is death, the Christian church has had a long tradition of extending this to include everything that is not from within itself. Much has been destroyed in the name of this perspective – much has been lost.
To be gentle is the opposite of violence. It is about expressing love in ways that are filled with kindness, that consider the impact of every action, that desire peace and mercy. This gentleness is about providing constant love in our hearts.
Hope. Renewal. These emerge from selfless generosity. From gentle love. They are not the spoils of war. They are the result of considered actions that have been consciously planned to offer what is most needed. And they should be celebrated. These are the things deserving of our alleluias and our joy. On Easter, or whenever. Not to win, but to give.
Bob Wiebe said:
Thanks for lifting up this gentle hymn. Your comments about the triumphalism in many Easter hymns are interesting. My first response was to the effect that the language of the Bible itself is victorious and triumphant when it refers to Easter, e.g. “death, where is thy sting”. It would be interesting to hold these triumphant hymns beside the scripture texts to see if the church amplified the triumphant strains. In any case, there is room for the hymns, like this one, extolling Christ’s selfless sacrifice. I am reminded of John Driver’s book Understanding the Atonement, which makes room both for triumphant images of the Easter reality and the kind of images in this hymn. Keep up your wonderful work, Carla!