Words: By Dr. Brian Wren
Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.
Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
but saving, healing, here and now,
and touching every place and time.
Not throned above, remotely high,
untouched, unmoved by human pains,
but daily, in the midst of life,
our Savior with the Father reigns.
In every insult, rift, and war
where color, scorn or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
and lives, where even hope has died.
Women and men, in age and youth,
can feel the Spirit, hear the call,
and find the way, the life, the truth,
revealed in Jesus, freed for all.
Christ is alive, and comes to bring
good news to this and every age,
till earth and sky and ocean ring
with joy, with justice, love, and praise.
This beautiful hymn was written by Dr. Brian Wren for Easter Sunday in 1968 just a year before my birth. This happened just 10 days after the assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Brian Wren was faced on the one hand with the devastating news of the violent assassination of the leader of the non-violent movement for Civil Rights for African Americans, and on the other a responsibility to preach the good news of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This hymn was originally titled, “The Crucified Lord.” Dr. Wren wrote it for Hockley and Hawkwell Congregational (now United Reformed) Church in Essex where he was serving as minister on that Easter Sunday.
Dr. Wren notes that “I tried to express an Easter hope out of that terrible event, in words which could be more widely applied, and wrote ‘Christ is alive!’ because our available hymns spoke of Easter as a glorious event long ago, far away, and high above.”
Indeed, it is said that the world was still trembling with despair at the time and people did not feel like singing at all. Dr. Wren looked through the hymnal but found only lyrics with “triumphal imagery of things long ago, far away, and high above.” The words seemed insufficient to the tragic realities of the moment.
Undeterred, Dr. Wren took matters into his own hands and penned the lyrics to a new Easter hymn, CHRIST IS ALIVE. It is a hymn of modern complexity, in which a suffering Jesus continues to be crucified wherever race, class, and war divide us.
The good news is that Christ is resurrected in our healing and our hope. Not bound to a cross at old Golgotha nor exiled to a remote heaven in the sky, he is alive where we live, work, and worship today.
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning,” the Psalmist sang thousands of years ago. “Keep your eyes on the prize! Hold on!” the people sang during the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century.
In Brian Wren’s hymn, we are urged to sing, pray, and work for the day when the world will be resurrected from the tombs of injustice, hatred, hunger, and war. We keep our eyes on the prize and dream Easter dreams in a world of perpetual Good Fridays, confident that, one day, all creation will ring with joy, justice, love, and peace. Alleluia! The cross is empty. Christ is alive! Alleluia!
Dr. Wren, now a citizen of the United States, is professor emeritus of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. He has published eight collections of his hymn texts and two additional collections with his wife Susan Heafield, a United Methodist minister.
Dr. Wren’s hymns appear in virtually every English language hymnal published since 1980. He serves the church universal in many capacities including a parish minister, hymn writer and lecturer.
A hymn is a work in progress for Brian Wren. As is his practice, he has made several revisions to “Christ is Alive!” including revisions made since it was published in the UM Hymnal in 1989, but the Easter message remains the same.
One of the four leading hymn writers from England who led the way in what has been called the “hymnic explosion” of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—and continues to this day—Dr. Wren carries a message that is often prophetic and jarring, leading some to call him the “sandpaper” of the hymn writers of his generation. While his message is disturbing at times, it is also hopeful. Christ is alive!
Couple of comments about the lyrics:
Stanza One: Christ is alive! Let Christians sing; The cross stands empty to the sky; Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die.
Stanza one opens with a declarative and unequivocal statement: “Christ is alive!” These words declare not of a historical observance of long ago when Christ died on Calvary, but the celebration of a current event. Now Christ is Alive. He lives. This is in line with the pattern of Easter hymns throughout the ages, we always speak of the resurrection of Christ in the present tense. Christ lives forever to reign!
Another hymn writer, Charles Wesley wrote, “Christ the Lord is risen today!” Our response to the Easter event is to sing. We sing this good news in response to the songs of praise coming from heaven. Singing requires full-body participation and commitment. Dr. Wren’s opening stanza captures the sense of a cosmic event.
Stanza two: Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.
In stanza two, Dr. Wren clarifies that the resurrection was not for one place and time historically, but for all places and all times—“he comes to claim the here and now and dwell in every place and time.”
Stanza Three: Not throned above, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains, but daily, in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns.
Perhaps in response to the criticism of the church as remote from the needs and concerns of the world, Dr. Wren addresses this directly in stanza three: “Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains. . . .” This resurrected Christ has been with us in the “midst of life” yet paradoxically “in the God-head reigns” beyond this world.
Stanza Four: In every insult, rift, and war where color, scorn or wealth divide, Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, where even hope has died.
Stanza four is the touchstone for the King assassination—the place where Dr. Wren brings the resurrection into contact with human suffering as expressed in racism, war, and all of the ways that we hurt and destroy our fellow human beings. This resurrected One “suffers still, yet loves the more” in the midst of the devastation that we bring upon each other.
Stanza Five: Women and men, in age and youth, can feel the Spirit, hear the call, and find the way, the life, the truth, revealed in Jesus, freed for all.
In stanza five Dr. Wren reinforces the living presence of Jesus in every generation to every generation. God has been a shelter through all generation and all men and women, boys and girls can attest to this fact. Christ is live today and he still saves sinners as ever before.
Stanza Six: Christ is alive, and comes to bring good news to this and every age, till earth and sky and ocean ring with joy, with justice, love, and praise.
The final stanza comes full circle and refocuses us on the “good news to this and every age.” The cosmic joining of heaven and earth is explicit here: “till earth and all creation ring. . . .” The cosmos rings with the fullness of the good news of “joy and justice, love and praise.”