Easter: Sorrow and Joy
Oh good, I thought to myself when the words Regina Caeli appeared in the list of chants for choir practice before my one and only conventual Easter. I know how to sing the Regina Caeli. It’s easy. You just go –
Until, that is, everybody else sings:
Easter in the religious life came on in a heady rush of music: the Exultet sung by Father at the vigil on Saturday evening, the vibrant Invitatory Psalm at Morning Prayer, and the familiar (thank heavens!) words of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!” at Mass on Sunday. In the midst of it all, though, was one song that initially didn’t seem to fit.
Christ the Lord is ris’n again! Christ hath broken ev’ry chain!
Hark, the angels shout for joy, Singing evermore on high, Alleluia!
All those exclamation marks make it look lively enough, but the melody to which we sang it is something completely different; slow, subdued and with a plaintive tone that somehow seems better suited to Lent than Easter.
It was sung by the community every day throughout the Octave, and I loved it, but couldn’t quite grasp what it was doing there amongst all the cheerful music that surrounded it.
Then I left the convent, and the next Easter, the mixture of joy and sorrow was easier to understand. The words were written by German Protestant theologian Michael Weisse in the 16th century, a time of upheaval and confusion among the faithful as the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism grew deeper. For his optimistic words, he chose a haunting ancient chant tone that expressed something of the sense of loss that must have filled Christianity as theological conflicts tore families and monasteries like his own apart. We rejoice in a world that is redeemed by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, it says, but with a sense of loss and a yearning that cannot be filled until His return at the end of time. In an incomplete and imperfect world, even joy aches. Will there ever be an Easter that’s not shadowed by the wish that I were celebrating it in the convent?
And yet, even through the sober melody, the hymn reminds us that Christ hath broken every chain! – the chains of our grief included. For all the sorrow of our world, every Easter is a sign that the turning point of history has already occurred, and every celebration of the Resurrection brings us another year closer to the Kingdom of God.
Now He bids us tell abroad, How the lost may be restored,
How the penitent forgiv’n, How we, too, may enter heav’n, Alleluia.
And, from the breviary for the morning of Holy Saturday: Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has struck us down, but He will heal our wounds; after a day or two He will bring us back to life, on the third day He will raise us and we shall live in His Presence (Hosea 6:1-3a).