By Ryan Egan
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:24-26).
So now we come to Maundy Thursday, where we remember the intense grief that caused Jesus to sweat drops of blood in anguish during His prayer of preparation for what would happen next: Good Friday, where we remember the bloody, brutal, violent death Jesus went through. Yet, we call this coming Friday “good” for a reason, don’t we? We call it good because the power of Jesus did not end with His death and burial; it did not end with a sealed tomb. We call it good because the death of a fully-human God had to happen first in order for Him to prove His power over it. We call it good because now, in spite of the inevitability of our own death, we can face it with peace and triumph instead of fear and trembling.
Hallgrimur Petursson’s Hymns of the Passion ends with a look at this very idea. Having walked us through the entirety of Holy Week, Petursson now gives us the culmination of how the previous texts apply to the reader. In “Death’s Uncertain Hour and Christ’s Victory,” the text brings us to the end, not of the life of Jesus, but to our own lives. The 13 stanzas in this hymn take the reader through an understanding that death cannot be avoided apart from the return of Jesus, that God has lent us this life just for a little while, and that, with faith in Him, we can welcome death knowing that its power has been destroyed and we will live eternally with Him.
Interestingly, in researching these hymns, two different translations of this particular piece are available. The first, by Arthur Charles Gook, where most of these texts are coming from, includes all 13 stanzas, focusing more on how death will come for us in the first nine, and looking at what God has done about it in the last four. Here is a brief excerpt from Gook’s translation:
5. No highborn rank or station Death’s sure attack can foil.
No bribe, no mediation, can rob him of his spoil,
No prayer, no lamentation, can alter his decree,
He heeds no supplication, accepts no anguished plea.
This stanza feels like it could fit in well with Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” text, reminding us that nothing we can do on our own can atone for our sin.
6. The fatal day and hour are hidden from our sight,
When Death, in his grim power, our feeble frame shall smite.
By one way every mortal gained entry to this life;
Through many a darkened portal do we conclude our strife.
7. For all, without exception, our fate it is to die.
Perish the vain deception, that I shall be passed by.
My nature I inherit from Adam’s fallen strain,
And by my deeds I merit to turn to dust again.
8. I did not earn possession of this my life on earth.
My soul, by God’s concession, was lent me at my birth.
God makes His own decision when to reclaim His loan,
And sends Death on the mission to bring Him back His own.
How heavy! How disheartening and discouraging! But, as we already recalled, the power of death does not end in the grave. The final verses of this hymn, which we’ll come to shortly, contain the much-needed assurance of the victory Jesus claimed over the grave.
The second translation, and one that focuses only on these final verses, is one found in C. Venn Pilcher’s The Passion Hymns of Iceland. Both Gook’s and Venn Pilcher’s translations of these final four verses are beautiful, but one line in Venn Pilcher’s translation is particularly profound as we think about the death of one Man which brought life to the rest of us: “He conquered death by dying upon th’accursed tree, and from His death sprang glorious eternal life for me.” Here are the verses found in Venn Pilcher’s translation, with some minor text updates that I’ve made:
1. I know that my Redeemer lives crowned upon the throne.
Lord over earth and heaven, He saves and He alone;
He conquered death by dying upon th’accursed tree,
And from His death sprang glorious eternal life for me.
2. Christ conquered death by dying, Jesus, Your mortal pain
O’er threw the King of Terrors and broke the captive’s chain.
Now, though this earthly body obey death’s dread behest,
The soul soars free, rejoicing, to mansions of the blest.
3. I think upon my Savior, I trust His pow’r to keep,
His mighty arm enfolds me, awaking and in sleep.
Christ is my rock, my courage, Christ is my soul’s true life;
And Christ, my still heart knows it, will bear me through the strife.
4. Thus in Christ’s name I’m living, thus in Christ name I’ll die;
I’ll fear not, though life’s vigor from death’s cold shadow fly.
O Grave, where is your triumph? O Death, where is your sting?
Come when you will and welcome, secure in Christ I sing!*
It has been a joy and delight to dig into these texts, the life of Hallgrimur Peturrson, and the account of Passion Week more deeply. One of my long-term goals with this project is to put many of these texts to music, which can be used in a corporate setting. As such, I was inspired to write a new melody for Venn Pilcher’s translation above, and I wanted to offer both a four-part version that can be used in more piano/organ-led churches as well as a lead sheet version with chords notated that can be used in modern settings. You can find the four-part arrangement here and the lead sheet arrangement here.
*(Ed. note: Pilcher’s stanzas 1-4 are the same as Gook’s 10-13)
Egan, director of Worship and Creative Arts at Living Word Free Lutheran, Sioux Falls, S.D., holds a degree in multimedia and graphic design and studied music composition at the University of Sioux Falls. His passions include helping the Church understand and appreciate the whole scope of its musical heritage (modern, ancient, and everything in between), writing music, and helping artists use their creative gifts in the Church. Petursson’s fascinating story will be explored in more detail in the March issue of The Lutheran Ambassador.