Jesus lives! thy terrors now
can, O death, no more appal us;
Jesus lives! by this we know
thou, O grave, canst not enthral us.
This is the opening stanza of, probably, my favourite Easter Hymn. It was written (in German) by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-69) and translated into English by Miss Frances Cox (1812-97). I do wonder why the parents of young master Gellert chose to call their son Christian Godfearer (a rough translation of Furchtegott)!
Had I not known better I might have thought that this hymn had been written post-1910 and that its inspiration had been a sermon by Canon Henry Scott Holland. In fact, the inspiration may have worked the other way round. On the 15th May 1910 Scott Holland preached a sermon in St Paul’s Cathedral entitled The King of Terrors. An excerpt (Death is nothing at all – an excerpt taken entirely out of context completely contradicting what Scott Holland was saying) is sometimes read at funerals. At the time of this sermon King Edward VII was lying in state in Westminster Hall and Scott Holland used the opportunity to reflect on the terror of death and the joy of the resurrection.
Scott Holland wrote: ‘I suppose all of us hover between two ways of regarding death, which appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other. First, there is the familiar and instinctive recoil from it as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster. It is the impossible, the incredible thing. Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It simply traverses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope on which life feeds, and every intention which gives life significance. It makes all we do here meaningless and empty. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”… But, then, there is another aspect altogether which death can wear for us. It is that which first comes down to us, perhaps, as we look down upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of one who has been very near and dear to us. There it lies in possession of its own secret. It knows it all. So we seem to feel. And what the face says to us in its sweet silence to us as a last message from the one whom we loved is: “Death is nothing at all…”. ‘
It was Whitsun, when Scott Holland preached his sermon – the end of the Easter season – and he reminded his congregation and us that by the power of the Holy Spirit we have already been moved from death to life. Through the cross and resurrection, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can know the fullness of the life that Christ came to bring. And that is none other than eternal life with Christ. Death is not ‘nothing at all’, but as disciples of Christ we need not fear death, for by his cross and resurrection death has been conquered once and for all.
Jesus lives! to him the throne
over all the world is given:
may we go where he is gone,
rest and reign with him in heaven.