Tuesday, 11 December 2018

‘Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest.
The lights of evening round us shine’

‘Hail gladdening light’ … sunset at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

After a few stormy days, with strong winds and heavy rains, the weather became much calmer here yesterday, with clear skies as the day continued, and a beautiful sunset that brought colour to the evening.

I spent today in Adare today [11 December 2018], taking part in a chaplaincy training day for priests in these dioceses. But as I returned to Askeaton this evening, the turned was pouring down again, and we seem to have returned to winter weather. But looking back at photographs of a winter sunset in Skerries two years ago [11 December 2016], I realised these colourful sunsets are not unusual at this time of the year.

As I watched yesterday’s sunset in the Rectory garden in Askeaton first, and then in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Church, my mind turned again to the hymn Phos Hilaron (Φῶς Ἱλαρόν).

This is an ancient Christian hymn, originally written in Koine Greek. It is sometimes referred to by its Latin title, Lumen Hilare, and it has been translated into English as Hail, gladdening light and O Gladsome Light. This is the earliest known Christian hymn outside the Bible that is still in use to this day.

The hymn is part of vespers in the Byzantine Rite, and also included in some modern Anglican and Lutheran liturgies.

The hymn was first recorded in the late third or early fourth century by an unknown author in the Apostolic Constitutions. It is found in a collection of songs to be sung in the morning, in the evening, before meals, and at candle lighting.

It is divided into 12 verses, varying between five, six, eight, nine, 10 and 11 syllables a verse. The original Greek text is:

Φῶς ἱλαρὸν ἁγίας δόξης ἀθανάτου Πατρός,
οὐρανίου, ἁγίου, μάκαρος, Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
ἐλθόντες ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλίου δύσιν, ἰδόντες φῶς ἑσπερινόν,
ὑμνοῦμεν Πατέρα, Υἱόν, καὶ ἅγιον Πνεῦμα, Θεόν.
Ἄξιόν σε ἐν πᾶσι καιροῖς ὑμνεῖσθαι φωναῖς αἰσίαις,
Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ζωὴν ὁ διδούς· διὸ ὁ κόσμος σὲ δοξάζει.

A verbatim translation reads:

O gladsome light of the holy glory of the immortal Father,
the heavenly, the holy, the blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God.
Worthy it is at all times to praise thee in joyful voices,
O Son of God, giver of life, for which the world glorifies thee
.

‘The lights of evening round us shine’ … sunset at the harbour in Skerries, Co Dublin, two years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint Basil of Caesarea (329-379 AD), also called Saint Basil the Great and one of the Cappadocian Fathers, spoke of the singing of the Phos Hilaron as a cherished tradition of the Church, and by then the hymn was considered to be an old one.

The hymn is a fixed part of the Orthodox Vespers, sung or recited daily, at the entrance when great vespers is celebrated and, in all cases, after the ‘lamp-lighting psalms’ in the evening, so that it is sometimes known as the ‘Lamp-lighting Hymn.’

Drawing on manuscripts from the 12th-14th centuries, James Ussher, Archbishop of Dublin, included a version of the hymn in his collection De Symbolis in 1647.

The hymn was first translated into English in 1834 by John Keble (1792-1866), a leading figure in the Oxford Movement. Keble’s version was set for eight voices as an anthem in 1912 by the Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926). Wood was born in Vicars’ Hill, Armagh, three months after Keble died, and he later became Professor of Music in Cambridge.

In the Anglican tradition, the hymn has become associated with Evening Prayer. It was revived in the Church of Ireland in 1933. Today, John Keble’s version is recommended as the First Canticle at Evening Prayer in the Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer (p 109):

Hail, gladdening Light, of his pure glory poured,
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of Holies, Jesus Christ our Lord!

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefilèd tongue.
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own
.

Another 19th century translation by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) in 1851 was set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame and the son of an Irish-born bandmaster and music teacher. The translation by the Poet Laureate, Robert Seymour Bridges (1844-1930), ‘O gladsome light, O grace,’ is included in many hymnals.

In all, there are three versions of this hymn in the Church Hymnal (5th ed) of the Church of Ireland:

699, ‘Hail, gladdening light,’ by John Keble.
702, ‘Light of the world, in grace and beauty,’ by the Canadian hymnwriter and priest Paul Saison Gibson.
707, ‘O gladsome light, O grace,’ by Robert Bridges.

The version of the hymn by Robert Bridges in the Church Hymnal (707) reads:

O gladsome light, O grace
of God the Father’s face,
the eternal splendour wearing;
celestial, holy, blessed,
our Saviour Jesus Christ,
joyful in your appearing.

As day fades into night,
we see the evening light,
our hymn of praise outpouring:
Father of might unknown,
Christ, his incarnate Son,
and Holy Spir’t adoring.

To you of right belongs
all praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, Lifegiver;
you, therefore, O Most High,
the world will glorify,
and shall exalt for ever
.

Of course, the ‘gladdening light’ who is being welcomed in these hymns is Christ, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’ (John 1: 9), which makes this not only an appropriate hymn at the closing of the day, but an appropriate hymn in this season of Advent.

‘Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest’ … sunset in Saint Mary’s churchyard, Askeaton, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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