This Easter I want to revisit one of my favorite hymns, He Is Risen. Though I’ve shared this one before, the message of He is Risen is enduring and its history fascinating. As any staff member who has ridden in the car with me during the Easter season knows, I love to talk about He Is Risen and about Joachim Neander, who wrote the music.
In early April, both Christians and those of the Jewish faith will celebrate significant observances in their liturgical calendar. Members of the Jewish religion will be observing April 5-13 as Passover. Passover commemorates the time when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, and one of the plagues Moses foretold was that each family would lose their firstborn son. This was true unless they placed the blood of a lamb on their doorpost. Thus, the plague would “pass over” the marked houses.
In the middle of Passover week, Christians will celebrate Easter, which commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I believe Christ was sacrificed for us so our sins could be forgiven, thus “the Lamb of God” allows the judgment of God to pass over us.
For those who read my column frequently, you know at times of religious celebration I often harken back to church music.
Joachim Neander, born in 1650, gives us an example of how sometimes God creates interesting situations. Bear with me.
His family name was originally Neumann (meaning “new man”) but, as was fairly common at the time, the family changed it to a foreign equivalent. In this case, they went from ‘Neumann’ to ‘Neander,’ the Greek form.
Neander’s years as a student of theology were reportedly rather boisterous. As it goes, however, a sermon at St. Martin’s Church in Bremen, Germany by Pastor Theodor Undereyk touched Neander’s heart and seemingly served as a turning-point in his life, leading to significant spiritual growth.
In 1671 Neander began tutoring in Heidelberg. While there, Neander learned to know and love the beauties of nature. He later spent time in Frankfurt and was appointed Rector of a Latin school in Dusseldorf. In 1679, Neander returned to St. Martin’s Church in Bremen to serve as an unordained assistant to Pastor Undereyk. Neander passed away in 1680 at the age of 30. During his lifetime, he became known as a German teacher, theology, and hymn writer. He is said to have written approximately 60 hymns, including well-known hymns like Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation and He Is Risen.
One valley in Dusseldorf served as a particular source of inspiration for Neander as he wrote his compositions. After his death, that valley was named in his honor. It was first called Neandershole (or ‘Neander’s Hollow,’ in English) and then Neanderthal (or ‘Neander Valley’).
Interestingly, this valley later became famous for the 1856 discovery of bone specimens which were the first specimens to be recognized as early man-like fossils.
And so, Neander, a servant of God, whose name means “new man,” has a valley named after him because it served as an inspiration for musical compositions that exalted God and, in particular, the God who promised to make us all “new men.”
Further, nearly 200 years after Neander’s death, scientists searching for new wisdom came across bones of what, to them, was a new man. And they named their “new man” for the valley in which they found him – Neanderthal. Translated into English, they named the new man for the Valley of the New Man.
Accordingly, that is the rather roundabout way in which Homo neanderthalensis got its name – as a result of the spiritual development of German hymn writer Joachim Neander, who grew from a boisterous student into a “new man” of faith.
(Seems that God has a sense of humor!)
In honor of this interesting situation God created and in hopes that you all have a happy Easter, below you find the lyrics added to Neander’s hymn now known as He Is Risen:
He is risen! He is risen!
Tell it out with joyful voice.
He has burst his three days’ prison;
Let the whole wide Earth rejoice.
Death is conquered; man is free.
Christ has won the victory.
During this holiday period, I wish people of all faiths peace and joy.
– Congressman H. Morgan Griffith