At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing

The hymn of the day for the Fifth Sunday of Easter is my favorite Easter hymn – At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing. This hymn ties together the Passover Feast and the sacrifice of Jesus, our paschal lamb. Because Jesus is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, we can rejoice that we have the feast of heaven awaiting us. We receive what our liturgy calls a “foretaste of the feast to come” in the Divine Service, when Christ feeds us with His own body and blood, shed for us when He was slain once and for all to wash away our sins.

This hymn dates from somewhere between the 5th and 10th centuries. It was commonly sung throughout Europe and was the hymn for Vespers during the Easter season. It continues to be sung throughout the Christian church today because it is a true gem of our hymnody.

The image of heaven as a banquet, or feast, is common in the parables of Jesus, but I want to focus on the images of the victorious Lamb in Revelation. Let’s starts with Revelation 5:

5And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

 6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. . 9And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

And also from Revelation 7:
9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

 13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The Lamb of God was slain, but He has risen and conquered death and He is our victorious King. All who are washed in His blood are cleansed from their sins and will receive the eternal joys of heaven.

Here’s how we sing that in stanza 1:

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing

Praise to our victorious King,

Who has washed us in the tide

Flowing from His pierced side.

Alleluia!

 

Stanza 2:
Praise we Him, whose love divine

Gives His sacred blood for wine,

Gives His body for the feast-

Christ the victim, Christ the priest.

Alleluia!

 

We gather in the Divine Service for a foretaste of the feast to come. What do we eat and drink at this feast? We eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is also the host of the meal. Our resurrected Lord gathers us, feeds us, forgives us, and loves us. It’s no wonder, then, that this hymn comes only one week after Good Shepherd Sunday. He is also our high priest, who intercedes for us before the Father in heaven.  Jesus gave us this sacred meal in this famous passage from Matthew 26:

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Stanza 3:

Where the paschal blood is poured,

Death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;

Israel’s hosts triumphant go

Through the wave that drowns the foe.

Alleluia!

 

For this stanza, we should get some background on the Passover (paschal means Passover). This account comes from Exodus chapter 12:

 21Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 22Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. 24You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. 25And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.'” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

As the last plague against Egypt, the angel of death was sent to kill every firstborn. Where the blood of the paschal lamb was placed on the doorpost, the angel would “pass over” that house and leave the firstborn unharmed. The firstborn of Israel were saved by the blood of the lamb. The Israelites were then led to the Red Sea, where they passed through the waters unharmed, but all of Egypt’s army was swallowed up and drowned. This story is not just the story of ancient Israel; it is our story as well. We have been saved from death and judgment by the blood of our Lamb, Jesus, and we have passed through the waters of Holy Baptism and into new life. We see this in the next stanza.

Stanza 4:
Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,

Paschal victim, paschal bread;

With sincerity and love

Eat we manna from above.

Alleluia!

God redeemed His people by the blood of the lamb and led them through the waters. He then fed them with bread from heaven (manna) for the duration of their journey. The Lord’s Supper is our manna from above, as we are fed and nourished in the faith until we reach life everlasting. Jesus talks about this in John chapter 6:

28Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” 32Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

Stanza 5:

Mighty Victim from the sky,

Hell’s fierce pow’rs beneath You lie;

You have conquered in the fight,

You have brought us life and light.

Alleluia!

We have already seen from Revelation that Christ has conquered death and lives forever. He brings light and immortality to light through the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). This victory is for us!

Stanzas 6 and 7:
Now no more can death appall,

Now no more the grave enthrall;

You have opened paradise,

And Your saints in You shall rise.

Alleluia!

 

Easter triumph, Easter joy!

This alone can sin destroy;

From sin’s pow’r, Lord, set us free,

Newborn souls in You to be.

Alleluia!

A quick note on stanza 7; the second line would probably read better as “This can sin alone destroy.” That line confused me for a long time as I thought the stanza was saying that, although Christ had won the victory, sin was still going to destroy the triumph of Easter. I knew that couldn’t be right!  Rather, we pray in stanza 7 that God would give us the final victory over sin and death. These two stanzas relate closely to 1 Corinthians 15:

50I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The final stanza will give us a glorious doxological ending, praising each person of the Trinity for the blessings He gives us. What a joy to sing the song of salvation with this glorious hymn!

Stanza 8

Father, who the crown shall give,

Savior, by whose death we live,

Spirit, guide through all our days:

Three in One, Your name we praise.

Alleluia!

This Joyful Eastertide

Now that we are through Lent and Holy Week, I actually have enough time to resume writing my hymn studies. Notice that I did not say that we are through with Easter. Easter is a joyous 50 day season of the church year when we hear of the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and rejoice in this central fact of the Christian faith.

The hymn our congregation is learning during this season is “This Joyful Eastertide” by George R. Woodward, a translator and clergyman who lived from 1848-1934 and who compiled several collections of hymnody. We will be singing the hymn to the 17th century Dutch folk tune “Vruechten”, which is the tune to which Woodward intended this hymn to be sung. As an aside, let me say that this highlights the catholic (universal) nature of Christian hymnody and worship; we are singing a British hymn to a Dutch tune in a church in Texas, led by an organ built in a German style.

The hymn itself is based on 1st Corinthians chapter 15, where St. Paul lays out for us in clear terms the Christian teaching on the resurrection.

Here’s stanza 1:

This joyful Eastertide

Away with sin and sorrow!

My love, the Crucified,

Has sprung to life this morrow:

The hymn starts where 1st Corinthians 15 starts, with the Gospel:

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.

3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.

 The Gospel is that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with Scriptures, was buried, and was raised on the third day. That the Messiah must die for our sins is clearly prophesied in Isaiah, chapter 53:

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

 God laid our sins on Jesus and they died and were buried with Him. When Jesus rose from the dead, he left all our sins in the grave. This is why the first stanza of the hymn says, “Away with sin and sorrow!” Our sins are gone, conquered, and forgiven, and we now live with the sure hope and joy that comes with the assurance that Christ has risen from the dead.

Every stanza includes this refrain:
Had Christ, who once was slain,

Not burst His three-day prison,

Our faith had been in vain:

But now has Christ arisen, arisen, arisen;

But now has Christ arisen!

This is a summary of 1 Corinthians 15:12-22

12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

 I’m glad that this text is included as the refrain in the hymn so that we get to sing it more times.  This is such a central part of the Christian faith. If Christ is not raised, then all preaching is in vain, and our faith is worthless, useless, harmful, and irresponsible. If Christ is not raised then those who proclaim the Gospel are liars. After this comes the most important conjunction in all of Scripture; BUT! But, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep! We will be made alive in Christ even after we have fallen asleep. What joyous news! What an amazing Gospel! He is risen!

Stanza 2:
Death’s flood has lost its chill

Since Jesus crossed the river;

Lover of souls, from ill

My passing soul deliver.

This comes from 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, which includes a quote of Hosea 13:14:

54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The idea of crossing over the water of death into life runs through all of Scripture. Noah and his family survived the flood in the ark, Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and all who chased them drowned, and we who are baptized have also crossed over from death into life, as it says in 1st Peter 3:

18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

 We end the second stanza by praying to God that He would deliver our souls. We can pray this with confidence because our risen Lord hears our prayers.

Stanza 3:
My flesh in hope shall rest

And for a season slumber

Till trump from east to west

Shall wake the dead in number:

This comes from 1 Corinthians 15:51-52

51Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

The Christian term for the faithful dead is “sleep”. This is used throughout the New Testament by Jesus and the apostles. Death is the separation of body and soul:

Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 2nd Corinthians 5:8

 When the believer dies, the soul goes to be “at home with the Lord”,  but the flesh rests in the ground until our Lord returns. At that time the dead will be raised imperishable and reunited with the soul. This is the final resurrection and the point in history to which we look forward. I know this goes against much belief today, where many Christians believe that either they are done with their bodies when they die or that God will give them a completely different body. However, the truth is that our very bodies, our flesh, will be resurrected, transformed, reunited with the body and given eternal life with Christ on the last day.

We have passed from death to life. Sin is defeated and we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Christ is risen!