Apr 13, 2017

“The Reign of Death was Ended”

One of Martin Luther’s most famous Easter hymns begins in German with the words “Christ lag in Todesbanden.”

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“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 says
That death is swallowed up by death;
Its sting is lost forever: Alleluia.”
(Martin Luther, 1524, translated into English by Richard Massie in 1854)

Reflections by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History magazine

My mother was a music teacher. She spent all of her professional life either directing United Methodist church choirs or teaching public school music, and she majored in music in college.  I learned many things from her. One of them was that the tunes we sing hymns to have names. (If you don’t regularly sing hymns, do sing some this Easter, either to the old tunes or some new ones.)

Christ in death
Eighteenth-century painting of Christ in the bonds of death.


Anyway, one of Martin Luther’s most famous Easter hymns begins in German with the words “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in the bonds of death). In its English translation it is sung to a hymn tune written by Luther and a friend, and it's called, naturally enough, CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN.  (Hymn tune names are always written in ALL CAPS.) Except my mother never, ever called it that. She always called it “Christ lay on a toboggan,” just like she called the tune named LAUDA ANIMA “Laud my momma.”

When I was a teenager, the Methodists published a new hymnal that included four verses of Christ lag in Todesbanden, and I finally discovered there was much more to it than a toboggan, with or without the Lord on it. It actually has seven verses, which the Lutherans are much less shy about printing.  When you read all seven, you get Luther’s theology of Good Friday and Easter in a nutshell. 

The hymn draws much of its imagery from what scholars call “Christus victor” atonement theology: the idea that what Christ did for us on the cross was, most fully, about fighting a decisive victory over sin, death, and the devil: “Destroying sin, he took the crown/ From death’s pale brow forever./ Stripped of pow’r, no more it reigns.” It also pulls in imagery from the Exodus (the blood on the door and the unleavened bread) and, because it’s Luther, notes that “No son of man could conquer death,/ Such ruin sin had wrought us” and reminds us that we know all this because, well, “Holy Scripture plainly says.” (The 16th-century version of “The Bible tells me so.”)

When I was a teenager, I wasn’t quite clear on the idea that “no son of man could conquer death” because, as you know, all teenagers think they can conquer death, and Christian teenagers think they can make Jesus happy, too. Now I am 45 years old. I know better.

My mother died in 2008. As we come once again to Good Friday and Easter and as I sing this hymn in hope, I must trust that what Luther said here is true: that when life and death contended in that “strange and dreadful strife,” that “the victory remained with life;/ The reign of death was ended”—and that by lauding my momma, I was learning to laud her death-conquering Jesus, too.

Reflections by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History magazine,  including issue #115 on Luther Subscribe to get future issues in print here!

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Tags death • Martin Luther • hymns

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