Easter hymn review: “The Day of Resurrection”
The hymn “The Day of Resurrection” (ELH 356) is one of the oldest hymns in our hymnary—written more than a thousand years ago by Saint John of Damascus. It has been called “the grandest piece in Greek sacred poetry.” John of Damascus himself was nicknamed John Chrysorrhoas, ‘the golden speaker.’
At the Easter Eve midnight service it is customary in Eastern Orthodox churches for worshipers to carry unlighted candles which are lighted on signal while this hymn is sung, filling the church with their glow. In his Hymns of the Eastern Church, John Mason Neale (the translator of the hymn into English) described such a service:
The scene is laid in Athens, Easter Eve. The midnight hour is drawing near. The archbishop and the priests, together with the king and the queen, come out from the church and ascend a large platform from which they may be seen by the crowd. The people stand round about in silent expectation, reverently holding their torches which are ready to be lighted. A muffled song of the monks is heard from a distance. The firing of a cannon announces the midnight hour. The old archbishop raises the cross toward the heavens and with a powerful and jubilant voice he exclaims: “Χριστός ἀνέστι” (Christ is arisen). The silence is broken by the triumphant shout of joy coming from the multitudes who repeat the grand message: “Christ is risen! Easter Morn is breaking, darkness fades away.” In a moment thousands of torches are lighted as by a magic stroke and the light is reflected from the many faces beaming with enthusiastic joy. The air is filled with the playing of instruments, the roll of drums and the roaring of cannons. The people shake hands and embrace each other. From the olive groves the rockets shoot up towards the sky. Christ is risen! He has conquered death, trampled it under foot, and by the power of His resurrection all the faithful, whose bodies are in their graves, shall arise unto eternal life. Thus the hymn of the priests, re-echoed by the multitudes, rings out exultingly with an impassionate spirit, which only the true Easter joy can create. [in Dahle, Library of Christian Hymns]
John was an Arab Christian born in Damascus in the 700s during the rule of a Muslim caliph. The Christians were generally better educated than the Muslims, so the caliph employed Christians as administrators of the city, including John’s grandfather, father, and himself. In later life, John left Damascus and became an Orthodox priest and spent the rest of his life at St. Sabbas monastery near Jerusalem.
John was a famous preacher in his own lifetime and an influential theologian throughout the Middle Ages. At a world-wide church council in 787, he stood against the Emperor himself on the use of icons and the Emperor was forced to concede.
But in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) world all this was secondary to his fame as a poet. Much of his poetry entered the liturgical life of the Eastern Church and he is considered the greatest of the Greek hymn writers.
356 – The Day of Resurrection
The day of resurrection,
Earth, tell it out abroad,
The Passover of gladness,
The Passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
From this world to the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over
With hymns of victory.
Our hearts be pure from evil
That we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal
Of resurrection light
And, listening to His accents,
May hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All Hail!” and, hearing,
May raise the victor strain.
Now let the heavens be joyful,
Let earth her song begin,
Let all the world keep triumph
And all that is therein.
Let all things, seen and unseen,
Their notes of gladness blend;
For Christ the Lord hath risen;
Our joy that hath no end.