From the time when Jesus sung a hymn with His disciples on Maundy Thursday, to the present day, the Church has sung “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” That is not news. We all know it. What you may not know is that one of the oldest hymns and spiritual songs sung by Christians through the ages is still sung -- part of the Lutheran Service Book service of Evening Prayer. It is known as the Phos Hilaron and itself the basis of many paraphrased hymns that follow this original sung prayer.
The Phos Hilaron (from the Latin Lumen Hilare) is often simply called Joyous Light of Glory and qualifies as both one of the most ancient of the Christian hymns and one still sung often within the life of the Church. It's words were first recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions
(dating from around the 4th century and perhaps written about 150 AD). It was
chanted during Vespers as the lights were lit while the sun was setting.
Saint Basil the Great called the hymn “one of our oldest and most
beloved hymns.” This was such a part of the life of the ancient church that they did not know who wrote it but only knew that it had been so long a part of the evening prayer office that it was a standard. This thanksgiving for light was sung when it was customary to keep a lamp lit at Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem. The early
Christians sang this hymn as the evening light was lit -- the light being a living symbol of the Lord's presence even in the ordinary darkness of the setting sun and rising moon.
In the LSB this canticle is sung responsively, the pastor chanting the opening line and the people joining in its words before the thanksgiving prayer is prayed. All of this forms the entrance rite or beginning of Evening Prayer.
Joyous Light of glory: of the immortal Father; heavenly, holy, blessed
Jesus Christ. We have come to the setting of the sun and we look to the
evening light. We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: You
are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever. O Son of God, O
Giver of life: the universe proclaims Your glory. (LSB 244)
This appears twice in paraphrase in our hymnal. Its first line is O gladsome light, O grace Of God the Father's face, and while the author is unknown, the translator is Robert Seymour Bridges and it dates from about the 200s.
O Gladsome Light, O grace
Of God the Father's face,
Eternal splendor wearing:
Celestial, holy, best,
Our Savior Jesus Christ,
Joyful in thine appearing.
As daylight turns to night,
We see the fading light
Our evening hymns outpouring,
Father of might unknown,
Thee, His incarnate Son,
And Holy Ghost adoring.
To Thee of right belongs
All praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, Life-giver;
Thee, therefore, O Most High,
The world doth glorify
And shall exalt forever. (LSB 888)
A more modern paraphrase is even more popular (probably due to the tune used in this setting). It is Carl Daw's paraphrase (first known to Lutherans when it was inclused in Hymnal Supplement 98).
O Light whose splendor thrills and gladdens
With radiance brighter than the sun,
Pure gleam of God's unending glory,
O Jesus, blest Anointed One.
As twilight hovers near at sunset
And lamps are lit and children nod,
In evening hymns we lift our voices
To Father, Spirit, Son: one God.
In all life's brilliant, timeless moments
Let faithful voices sing Your praise,
O Son of God, our Life-bestower,
Whose glory brightens endless days. (LSB 891)
Some of the most joyful times of our celebration of the church year are when we sing Evening Prayer, and the Phos Hilarion always lifts my heart.
I first became aware of the Phos HIlarion when it appeared in the Book of Common Prayer 1979. As Pastor Peters points out, it is very ancient, pre-dating the Council of Nicaea. It was put into the 1979 BCP by Urban Holmes and his cronies seeking to introduce heresy into that book. In that version, it speaks of the Father and the Son, but makes no reference to the Holy Ghost, implying that God is a Binary, not Trinity. This sort of error is always a risk when seeking to introduce things older than Nicaea.
Continuing Anglican Priest
On of my favorites, it is hauntingly beautiful and particularly so in a well done Order of Evening Prayer.
The Orthodox sing this (or say it depending on the day) for every Vespers and the faux-Gregorian version in the LSB can't hold a candle to the Orthodox chanting of this. For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fd7kcQaDbKg
Diffetent, to buy sure. Better?Hardly .
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