Tonight is the climax of Holy Week and the climax of the whole year. This is the night we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the night that heralds a dawn for all creation, when sin, death and hell, everything that would destroy us is defeated for ever. As the hymn puts it so powerfully, For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead.
It takes poetry to give us the words when cold prose can’t bear the weight of glory that the Easter gospel demands. “He rose again according to the scriptures” – how much is compressed in that brief line of the creed! So you turn to hymns like Ye Choirs of new Jerusalem to fill out the meaning, to be reminded how life-changing this festival is, full of joy and gratitude and hope. If only we could live out our days by the light of this paschal candle and the song called exultet, and the echoing praise of our alleluias, and the Easter greeting “peace be with you”!
It’s one of our most vibrant and energetic Easter hymns, this song that comes to us out of the middle ages. It takes up a single, ancient image of resurrection and plays with it throughout its six stanzas. It’s a picture we have met earlier this Holy Week where the Redeemer offers himself as the ransom by dying on the cross, descending to the place of the dead and rescuing all who were enchained in darkness. And then follows a victory procession. Who is at the head? The Lion of Judah, the mighty warrior who devours the depths of hell, overcomes death, and bursts out of the grave in victory. Behind, his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. This great procession will not end until it gathers up the whole of creation, and “God has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things” as Ephesians puts it. Triumphant in his glory now, to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven.
This weekend we are troubled by events on the world stage, when huge bombs are dropped in theatres of war, and a fearful parade of weaponry is on show to a world that watches with alarm. In this Holy Week of the cross and resurrection, it feels all the more pointed an insult, a gesture of contempt for the just and gentle rule of Jesus our Saviour. And this Easter liturgy seems like an impossible dream. We long to hear the word of comfort that says to us: "do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid".
Yet tonight we do the impossible and imagine ourselves into God's time of resurrection where our hells are finally harrowed, and deaths the last enemy is defeated, and sorrow and sighing flee away, and all things acknowledge the reign of our crucified and risen Lord. For Christianity is about impossible dreams because it teaches us to “hope against hope”, as the New Testament says of Abraham. For now, the grand vision of our hymn is just that, a vision of how things will be when our prayer "thy kingdom come!" is realised and at last, Christ takes the power and reigns. That day - will it be far off or near? Who can say?
But in a way, it is never closer to us than here at the Easter liturgy. For our celebration tonight pulls that day of triumph forward into our present experience where it meets the story we tell about the man who came among us from God, and lived and died and was raised on the third day. That was where the Christian story began. It won’t end until all things are gathered up in Christ. But in between, we live out our ordinary days in the light of the past and the future. We bear the marks of this crucified and risen Lord in our baptism. But now he has eastered in us and is alive in our very midst, among us and in us and in all who celebrate this feast across the world. We travel on as the Easter people whose song is alleluia. Our hearts sing and play and dance. We find a new courage to persevere in faith and bear witness to it because we are sustained by our living hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
What else can we do but celebrate? While joyful thus his praise we sing says the hymn. At the end, we sing the doxology, praising God the eternal Trinity for this resurrection that changes everything, changes all of us for ever, heralds a new creation. And even when our alleluias fall silent, they go on in our hearts as we live the truth of Easter and take our place in the springtime triumphal procession of the ransomed hosts on the way where Jesus goes before us into the kingdom of God.
Wakefield Cathedral, Easter Eve 2017
Ye choirs of new Jerusalem,
your sweetest notes employ,
the Paschal victory to hymn
in strains of holy joy.
For Judah's Lion bursts his chains,
crushing the serpent's head;
and cries aloud through death's domains
to wake the imprisoned dead.
Devouring depths of hell their prey
at his command restore;
his ransomed hosts pursue their way
where Jesus goes before.
Triumphant in his glory now
to him all power is given;
to him in one communion bow
all saints in earth and heaven.
While we, his soldiers, praise our King,
his mercy we implore,
within his palace bright to bring
and keep us evermore.
All glory to the Father be,
all glory to the Son,
all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
while endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen
Fulbert of Chartres c960-1028