‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’

Easter without music is unimaginable. Our Lutheran church begins its Easter service by enthusiastically singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Later we move on to Luther’s signature Easter chorale, “Christ Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (Christ lag in Todesbanden), which is also in the Christian Reformed Church’s gray Psalter Hymnal. The Alleluias that punctuate each line of those hymns are all the more exuberant for us not having sung Alleluias during Lent. 

Two centuries after Luther, J.S. Bach – the composer at the pinnacle of Western music and a devout, Bible- and theology-studying Lutheran – wrote a church cantata based on Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4). 

After an opening orchestral sinfonia, seven choral movements follow, each using one of the seven original stanzas of the chorale. As the years passed, Bach used this chorale again and again: in seven other compositions (cantatas and organ works). What so attracted him? Isn’t using it seven times a bit of overkill? No. Not when you have Bach’s inventive powers and spiritual insight. Each setting is unique and adds to how a Christian experiences the truth of the chorale text. As for the first question: set to a sturdy, enduring tune, the chorale uniquely states the core of Bach’s, and our, faith. Luther’s original text is also graphic in its metaphors, and Bach captures that. 

The Easter lamb
Stanza 1 summarizes what is to follow: “Christ lay in the bonds of death, given over for our sins. He is risen again and brought us life! For this we should be joyful! Praise God and be thankful to him, and sing Hallelujah!”

Stanza 2 presents our dilemma: “Nobody could overcome death among all the children of mankind. Our sin was the cause of all this, no innocence was to be found. Therefore Death came so quickly, and held us captive to his kingdom.” Note the personification of Death. But! Christ came. And he, taking our place, took away Death’s rights and power! Hallelujah! Bach has the tenors sing the chorale verse, accompanied by the orchestra in a kind of frenzied dance. He is simultaneously implying, I think, our joy in Christ’s sacrifice and Jesus’ arduous road to death. 

Stanza 4 depicts the “strange battle” between Life and Death. “Scripture has proclaimed how one death ate the other. Death has become a mockery.” Bach sets this as a fugue (canon). The parts snakily intertwine and vie with one another. Stanza 5 depicts Christ literally being offered as the Easter lamb, “roasted in burning love, whose blood marks our doors.” Here, Satan and Death are stranglers, but an evil that can no longer do us harm. Bach slows the tempo to a dirge, with weighty, dark accompaniment for the bass-sung chorale text.

“Thus [Stanza 6] we celebrate the high feast with joy and delight that the Lord lets shine for us. Christ has become our sun and entirely enlightens our hearts with the brilliance of his grace.” Stanza 7 contains a final apt metaphor, but one, at first glance, strange: We can now live well on “the right Easter cakes.” “The old sourdough should not accompany [‘be with’] the word of grace; Christ alone will be our food and feed our souls. Faith will live in no other way.” 

Modern translations capture the point, giving us words for our Easter joy:

Then let us feast this Easter Day on Christ, the Bread of Heaven; 
the Word of Grace has 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!  

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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