The hymn of the day for the Fifth Sunday of Easter is my favorite Easter hymn – At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing. This hymn ties together the Passover Feast and the sacrifice of Jesus, our paschal lamb. Because Jesus is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, we can rejoice that we have the feast of heaven awaiting us. We receive what our liturgy calls a "foretaste of the feast to come" in the Divine Service, when Christ feeds us with His own body and blood, shed for us when He was slain once and for all to wash away our sins.
This hymn dates from somewhere between the 5th and 10th centuries. It was commonly sung throughout Europe and was the hymn for Vespers during the Easter season. It continues to be sung throughout the Christian church today because it is a true gem of our hymnody.
The image of heaven as a banquet, or feast, is common in the parables of Jesus, but I want to focus on the images of the victorious Lamb in Revelation. Let's starts with Revelation 5:
5And one of the elders said to me, "Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals."
6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. …. 9And they sang a new song, saying,
"Worthy are you to take the scroll
And also from Revelation 7:
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" 14I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
The Lamb of God was slain, but He has risen and conquered death and He is our victorious King. All who are washed in His blood are cleansed from their sins and will receive the eternal joys of heaven.
Here's how we sing that in stanza 1:
At the Lamb's high feast we sing
Praise to our victorious King,
Who has washed us in the tide
Flowing from His pierced side.
Gives His sacred blood for wine,
Gives His body for the feast-
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
We gather in the Divine Service for a foretaste of the feast to come. What do we eat and drink at this feast? We eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is also the host of the meal. Our resurrected Lord gathers us, feeds us, forgives us, and loves us. It's no wonder, then, that this hymn comes only one week after Good Shepherd Sunday. He is also our high priest, who intercedes for us before the Father in heaven. Jesus gave us this sacred meal in this famous passage from Matthew 26:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." 27And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Where the paschal blood is poured,
Death's dread angel sheathes the sword;
Israel's hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.
For this stanza, we should get some background on the Passover (paschal means Passover). This account comes from Exodus chapter 12:
21Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 22Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. 24You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. 25And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26And when your children say to you, 'What do you mean by this service?' 27you shall say, 'It is the sacrifice of the LORD's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.'" And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
As the last plague against Egypt, the angel of death was sent to kill every firstborn. Where the blood of the paschal lamb was placed on the doorpost, the angel would "pass over" that house and leave the firstborn unharmed. The firstborn of Israel were saved by the blood of the lamb. The Israelites were then led to the Red Sea, where they passed through the waters unharmed, but all of Egypt's army was swallowed up and drowned. This story is not just the story of ancient Israel; it is our story as well. We have been saved from death and judgment by the blood of our Lamb, Jesus, and we have passed through the waters of Holy Baptism and into new life. We see this in the next stanza.
Paschal victim, paschal bread;
With sincerity and love
Eat we manna from above.
God redeemed His people by the blood of the lamb and led them through the waters. He then fed them with bread from heaven (manna) for the duration of their journey. The Lord's Supper is our manna from above, as we are fed and nourished in the faith until we reach life everlasting. Jesus talks about this in John chapter 6:
28Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" 29Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
35Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Mighty Victim from the sky,
Hell's fierce pow'rs beneath You lie;
You have conquered in the fight,
You have brought us life and light.
We have already seen from Revelation that Christ has conquered death and lives forever. He brings light and immortality to light through the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). This victory is for us!
Stanzas 6 and 7:
Now no more the grave enthrall;
You have opened paradise,
And Your saints in You shall rise.
Easter triumph, Easter joy!
This alone can sin destroy;
From sin's pow'r, Lord, set us free,
Newborn souls in You to be.
A quick note on stanza 7; the second line would probably read better as "This can sin alone destroy." That line confused me for a long time as I thought the stanza was saying that, although Christ had won the victory, sin was still going to destroy the triumph of Easter. I knew that couldn't be right! Rather, we pray in stanza 7 that God would give us the final victory over sin and death. These two stanzas relate closely to 1 Corinthians 15:
50I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory." 55 "O death, where is your victory?
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The final stanza will give us a glorious doxological ending, praising each person of the Trinity for the blessings He gives us. What a joy to sing the song of salvation with this glorious hymn!
Father, who the crown shall give,
Savior, by whose death we live,
Spirit, guide through all our days:
Three in One, Your name we praise.