Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Candle-lighting Hymn of the Early Church

As far as I know there is no use of the English words “hilarity” and “hilarious” (meaning “extremely funny or merry”) in the texts of modern English Liturgy. However, in English Hymnals from the late nineteenth century and in English Liturgies of the twentieth century, we find the Greek word, hilaros/hilaron, from which they come (via the Latin hilaritas = mirth, gaiety, cheerfulness). And we find this Greek word in the title of an early Christian hymn, Phos Hilaron, which was sung at the Evening Prayer when the oil lights were lit (no electricity then!) to bring light into the sanctuary. Though the title was retained from the Greek Vespers, it was translated into English in verse form (see Episcopal Hymnal 1940, No 173 & 176) and sung as an Evening Hymn at Evensong in the Anglican Churches worldwide. At that time, it could not be used as a Canticle along with the Nunc Dimittis for the rubrics did not permit this.

Since hilaron points to cheerfulness, happiness and mirth, the Phos (Light) which is God the Father, the Light of lights, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, then Phos Hilaron as a Christian expression means “The Light which brings cheer, happiness, rejoicing, gladsomeness and mirth” into the world to the people of God. And of course this was dramatically conveyed symbolically by the increasing light in the sanctuary as the oil lamps were gradually lit and the darkness was dispelled.

Phos Hilaron, in translation, has been made an optional Canticle for Evening Prayer in most of the recent, innovative Anglican Liturgies. For example, the 1979 Prayer Book of The Episcopal Church used The Rev. Dr Charles M. Guilbert to make its translation and this begins, “O Gracious Light,” which contains a truth (God the Light is gracious) but “gracious” is not a translation of hilaron! The same hymn in the 2000 Prayer Book of the Church of England begins, “O joyful light,” which is nearer the mark. (Why the 1979 book has this obvious inaccuracy I do not know.)

If one does the research, one finds that there are many renderings into English of this evening hymn from the Early Church. Some are directly from the Greek into verse and others into prose. Some are made from the languages of the Orthodox Churches (Slavonic etc.) into English. What this array of translations/paraphrases reveals is that it is not easy to translate this short Greek hymn and that able people do it in different ways. What it also reveals is that those without the appropriate gifts and skill should not attempt to translate it! Translating is more of an art than a science and this short hymn tests the ability of all who seek to translate it.

The Hymn celebrates the GLORY of God the eternal Father and the glorious LIGHT which comes through his Incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And as the sun sets and the lamps are lit, the church of God sees in the light from the lamps a visible sign of the LIGHT of God and praises the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the One God. Recalling that God is known through and in Jesus, the church then focuses on the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who is the Son and God and, on behalf of all creation, worships and glorifies him.

It is a short hymn which celebrates the LIGHT that comes into the world from the HOLY TRINITY, the LIGHT which we experience as focused in the Incarnate Son of the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, from whom comes eternal life.

Regrettably the prose translation in the Episcopal Prayer Book of 1979, after beginning with an inaccurate description of Light, forces into the hymn a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity which cannot be truly found in the original Greek of this hymn or in the Greek theology of the period. Because the Episcopal Eucharist in Rite II begins with the problematic acclamation, “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” [notice the colon] this form of words became standard for other places in this 1979 Prayer Book, including, it appears, even in the translation of an early Greek hymn.

So while the C of E 2000 rendering is:

We give thanks and praise to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit of God

And while John Keble provided:

We hymn the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, divine,

The Rev Dr Guilbert wrote: “We sing thy praise O God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit” [notice the word order and the use of the colon].

Literally, the Greek translates: “We hymn Father Son and Holy Spirit God.” Here theos = God is deliberately at the end of the statement and is clearly intended to affirm that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit each and all is/are God (divinity, deity). In later terminology, this comes out as Three Persons and One God. Further, the Greek way of stating the Trinity (as the Nicene Creed makes clear) is to begin with the Father, to move on to his only-begotten Son and then to his Spirit, and thereby to state Three Persons, One God. Thus in this Greek hymn theos at the end of the line is crucially important for meaning, a clear Trinitarian one.

Regrettably the American 1979 rendering, through its bringing of theos to the beginning and then in its use of the colon, suggests the meaning that there is One God, and that this one God has three Aspects, or Names, or three Modes of Being. As a translation it fails completely to follow both the structure and the meaning of the original. (Better NEVER to sing it!)

But to end on a cheerful note.

If you would like to try to sing this Canticle in traditional Anglican style using a single psalm melody, here is a rendering by my learned friend, Ian Robinson, from 20 years ago ( see his Prayers for the New Babel, page 106) with the colons as used here metrical (as in the ordinary, traditional printing of psalms and canticles in the classic BCP) and (please note) using Coverdale-type English (as in the Psalter of the BCP 1662). Today he would probably want to revise it a little but here it is as he wrote it in 1980—choose your own psalm melody from the 1940 Hymnal selection..

Happy light, light of the holy glory : of the undying heavenly Father
O blessed from the Holy : Jesus Anointed
Coming at the going down of the sun : seeing the light toward evening
We sing our hymn to God the Father : the Son and the Holy Ghost
Well worth art thou O Lord in every season : to be hymned by lucky voices
O Son of God, who givest life : therefore the whole creation honours thee.

(Though God is placed in line 4 at the beginning—God the Father—there is no trace of Modalism or Unitarianism here as in the 1979 ECUSA book.)

I am happy to announce that in the January 2007 issue of The Mandate, the magazine of the Prayer Book Society of the USA (, there will be a very informative article by my neighbor and friend, the Revd Dr Daniel McGrath, who is a musician, on this ancient hymn; and before then there will be posted at a longer essay by him on the same topic.

Let us hymn the Father together with His Son and His Holy Spirit, GOD! November 15, 2006

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