My friend Kevin says that when a hymn gets stuck in your head, “it’s a little gift from God.” But what do you do when the hymn gnawing at your cabeza is one you just can’t stand?
Growing up an Episcopalian, the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982 has been—for better or worse—my primary church music influence. As hymnals go, it’s admittedly far from perfect, but where it shines, it really shines. On those days when the good Lord deigns to stick a tune in my head, it almost always comes from there.
That’s especially true at Easter:
Cecil Alexander’s jaunty “He is risen, he is risen!”
Brian Wren’s victorious “Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.”
Even “Hail thee, festival day!” with its wonky meter and tricky, alternating verse tunes.
But for me, the quintessential Easter hymn is Charles Wesley’s gladsome and glorious “Jesus Christ is risen today,” dripping from all sides with fat, festal, belly-deep alleluias. What more could you want on Easter?
But a few years ago my Minister of Music—a trusted colleague and an extraordinary musician—said, “You know, Lonnie, I grew up Baptist, and to me it’s just not Easter if we don’t sing, ‘Christ Arose.’”
That’s not unusual. My current Episcopal parish is filled with folks who have come to us from a wide variety of other denominations—Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Pentecostal, Church of God, Roman Catholic—so we frequently supplement our Episcopal hymnal with music drawn from other backgrounds. “Okay,” I said. “I don’t know that one. But if you say so, add it to the mix.”
Y’all. Have you heard this song? Turns out, it’s a hymn people either love or hate.
It starts out simply, mildly, lovely.
Low in the grave he lay,
Jesus my Savior,
waiting the coming day,
Jesus my Lord.
Then, all of a sudden, it takes a turn and digs deep down, and I mean way deep down. The tempo kicks up, and the melody shifts into something between a victory march and a tavern song. I recently heard a Methodist pastor say it sounds more like a modern day Vacation Bible School song than an Easter hymn, despite the fact that it was composed in 1874. To me, the tune to the refrain sounds like an obscure national anthem you might hear played for a surprise gold medalist at the Olympics.
Up from the grave he arose,
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Here’s the thing. I didn’t want to like this song. Despite its popularity among so many of my brother/sister Christians across so many denominations, I didn’t grow up with it, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It would be easy for me to go full bore church music snob, label it “campy,” retreat to my favorites, and call it a day.
But I love it.
It didn’t happen all at once—in fact it has taken years—but I love it. With every passing Easter, “Christ Arose” finds its way into our services, and my own reticence and eye rolls notwithstanding, it is inevitably and inexplicably the tune I walk away whistling. I am powerless against it. This year I went so far as to learn it on guitar, and on the Tuesday after Easter I sang it for the folks at our local nursing home. This is clearly the hymn of their childhood Easters, and I delighted as that typically somnolent group came alive and sang along, beaming with resurrection gladness.
So, what do you do when the hymn stuck in your head is one you just can’t stand?
Maybe you roll your eyes.
Maybe you chuckle.
Maybe you sigh.
But at the end of the day, you thank God for the gift:
the gift of Christian worship across the span of ages and denominations,
the gift of traditions old and new,
the gift of music and its knack for reaching deep into the soul,
and the gift of joy and wonder
in all of God’s works.