Updated: May 3, 2020
German text: Christ lag in Todesbanden
I Corinthians 15:50-57
Text: Martin Luther (1483-1546) Tune: Martin Luther (1483-1546)
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 hallelujah. Hallelujah!
2. It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
His sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!
3. Here the 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 doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, death passes o'er,
And Satan cannot harm us. Hallelujah!
4. So let us keep the festival
Whereto the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the Joy of all,
The Sun that warms and lights us.
By his grace he doth impart
Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah!
5. Then let us feast this joyful day
On Christ, the bread of heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away
The old and evil leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed,
He is our meat and drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other. Hallelujah!
Tr. Richard Massie (1800-1887)
Easter Saturday is a strange day of waiting. Like after a funeral, the committal and then
the lunch, we go home, maybe clean up, and get back to our lives. It is what the disciples
of Jesus did and we can feel that in the accounts. They really do not expect anything out
of the ordinary. None of them seem to remember Jesus’ predictions about rising on the
We know the rest of the story so our feelings on this day are a bit different. But one does
feel the lull and the waiting for Easter. We know something was going on deep at the
heart of the universe. We confess in the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday that Jesus
“descended into hell,” or “to the dead.”
What was Jesus doing there? The church has had some pitched battles about this. In the
Middle Ages Jesus was said to be harrowing hell, that is, raking it over to find the
righteous. The Orthodox Easter Vigil liturgy featured the Harrowing of Hell as Jesus
finds Adam and Eve. Dante in his Inferno has Virgil, the narrator, say that someone,
meaning Jesus whom he did not know, had come to take Adam and Eve, and the patriarchs out of hell.
N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), the great Danish theologian, also believed it was a time
when Jesus went to take back those who had died believing in the promise, like Adam
and Eve, the patriarchs and prophets, even giving some another chance.
Luther uses the images of Paul in I Corinthians 15 for his Easter hymn: Christ, the
Passover Lamb, was locked in a cosmic battle with death, sin and the devil. In his victory,
Christ became the death of death, sin and the devil. He swallows up the enemies. But
they don’t die easily.
We say Christ won the war, but the battle is not over. The skirmishes continue. We feel
the tremors of a pitched battle beneath our feet, at the very core of the earth, like an
earthquake. These are unsettling. People who have lived through earthquakes remark on a kind of feeling of betrayal that the one thing they could count on, the earth, has rumbled
under them and left them without a safe place to stand.
We believe that in this strife, with Jesus’ victory we have a safe place to stand—on the
rock, Jesus Christ. We are safe, but there are threats all around us, the devil’ legions are
still at work. Nature, albeit lovely and beautiful, can be a violent, destructive force.
Political powers can betray us or collapse. Even our dearest loves can sift away.
Only one thing is sure. We wait for Easter in hope and joy. Our faith holds fast because
we know that Christ has fought against the darkest forces of evil for us. All to deliver us
from death and hell. He defeated death by rising from the dead. Death had no more power
over him—or us. The miracle of Easter: Christ is risen!
Martin Luther (1483-1545) began writing hymns in 1523 when he realized that his
movement needed songs to teach the faith to his followers in their own language. This is
one of his earliest hymns, written with his friend, the composer Johann Walther (1496-
1570) in 1524. The lore says he and Walther sat around in Luther’s parsonage and
worked together to produce hymns in German with German tunes. Luther based this
hymn on a Latin text, making it into a hymn that expressed his theology of Christ’s work
on earth—especially the dramatic battle with Satan. Although it has not been as beloved
as many other Easter hymns, it is always there. Bach wrote a cantata on the hymn, one of
Christ lag in Todesbanden/Bach Cantata 4