This hymn was written by John of Damascus, one of the great poets of the Greek Church. He was born at the end of the 600s (in Damascus). His brother, aptly named by his proud parents Cosmas the Melodist, was educated by an Italian monk (also named Cosmas) whom they captured and pressed into slavery in order to educate their children. John of Damascus worked for the Islamic Caliph for several years, then renounced all his earthly possessions and moved to a monastery located between Jerusalem and the Red Sea. During the ensuing years, he wrote theological treatises defending orthodox Christianity. He also wrote numerous hymns.
This hymn is known as the “Golden Canon for Easter,” and was typically sung at the Easter Eve midnight service at which worshippers would carry unlighted candles into the church, only lighting them while this hymn was sung. The translator of this hymn, John Mason Neale, described the singing of this hymn in Athens sometime in the 19th century, “. . . the archbishop and priests and the King and Queen stood on a raised platform with the crowd gathered around them with unlighted tapers. At midnight the arrival of Easter was announced and a great shout went up, ‘Xristos anesti,’ or ‘Christ is risen.’ The tapers were lighted, and during the singing of this hymn drums and trumpets were sounded in the adjoining countryside.” In this context did they sing in stanza one, “The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God. From death to life eternal, from this world to the sky. Our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.” Easter reminds us that we have also passed from death into life, echoing Romans 6: 3-4, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Were were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Just as the Passover events were a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passover, so to was the crossing of the Red Sea—the Lord brought the Hebrews out of slavery and into life in a concrete and dramatic way just as He does to us through Word and Sacrament.
Whereas Lenten hymns explore shades of pain, death, life, salvation and usually provide a scriptural basis for our theological introspection, Easter hymns are too often monochromatic in their joy—“Christ is risen, alleluia.” Joy abounds, and the danger is that we confuse emotion with true joy as we sing these Easter hymns, which themselves are so easy to enjoy. That is not to say that there is no subtlety to Christ’s resurrection; there just does not seem to be too much subtlety in our hymns about the resurrection. Partly that is an unjust criteria to use on this hymn—it had dozens of stanzas originally which the English editors excised to three, in which there is, except for the Passover reference, little but exultant praise. Yet, Easter is more than empty triumphalism and mindless strains of jubilance. We are joyful because our baptism into His death enables us to pass from death to life. Our lives are not always easy (look at Job in the Old Testament) and sometimes God appears to have withdrawn His blessings. To quote another ancient hymn, “Alleluias cannot always be our song while here below.” Our feelings are ephemeral, but Christ’s objective act of justification on the cross is not dependent upon our feelings about it. Whether we feel just wonderful about our faith, or are depressed about it for some reason, we can take assurance in the fact that the true Easter message is one of passing from death to life and that our feelings about it do not change this fact! Easter does not provide us with easy escapes to our problems, and the fact that we still have problems does not negate the validity of Christ’s objective act on the cross. This, then, is true Easter joy—a joy not dependent on external circumstances, but focussed solely on the original “day of resurrection.”