When I was little, I liked this hymn (words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874).
Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!
Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!
Musically, the hymn was appealing to me. The verses are stately, almost march-like, while the refrain is faster, upbeat, and triumphant. With the words “up from the grave He arose,” the melody rises, too. I also liked the hymn because Jesus was pretty heroic. “He tore the bars away”… Superman did things like that.
Now I look at the hymn and see that it balances both the victory of Easter and the tragedy of Good Friday. Jesus is victorious at Easter … but first, he’s dead, executed. At least he received a more respectable burial than other condemned criminals. Nevertheless he is the “prey” caught by the predator Death.
Jesus’ heroism is one of obedience. He is dead because he followed God’s will. Remember the third “servant song” of Isaiah, 50:4-9a, where the servant declares he “gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (verse 6). What an odd kind of heroism! Certainly not the kind we necessarily esteem in people, whom we prefer to be forceful, perhaps good with weapons.
There is room for that kind of heroism. But there is also a force that resists retaliation. Dr. King once wrote, “We must use the weapon of love. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscious that we will win you in the process.” Suffering is a potential force for change, and a way for God to achieve amazing things.
But that’s the problem: who wants to suffer? Who wants to potentially be perceived as servile and passive?
The incarnate God is willing! He gives us a model for our own obedience but, much more importantly, he accomplished our unearned salvation through his own obedience, death, and resurrection.
… though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6:-11).