Phos Hilaron – Joy and Light

Phos Hilaron – Joy and Light

Phos Hilaron – Joy and Light.

“Hail Gladdening Light

of His pure glory poured

Who is the immortal Father, Heavenly Blest

Holiest of Holies, Jesus Christ our Lord

Now we come to the sun’s hour of rest

The lights of evening around us shine

We hymn the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Divine

Worthiest are thou, at all times to be sung

with undefiled tongue

Son of our God, Giver of life alone,

Therefore, in all the world, thy glories Lord

Thine own.”

In this exquisite, ancient hymn of worship, the first line sets the stage for the rest of the hymn with the two words that say it all: Joy and Light. Jesus is the light, and His light gladdens the heart and fills it with joy. The original Greek has translated gladdening into words like joyous, gladsome, and radiant. The light of Jesus radiates joy and gladness. This hymn was originally called Phos Hilaron, which happily and literally means “hilarious light.” The light of Jesus radiates so much joy that it is hilarious. Perfect.

Phos Hilaron is the oldest hymn in the Christian church. It’s so old that in the 4th century, it was considered ancient! It has been a traditional evening hymn down through history, sung around the world in most denominations. Back in the early church, it was sung at the ceremony called the “lighting of the lamps.” During this time a candle in the tomb of Christ was kept perpetually burning. And that candle was brought from the tomb into the nearby worship space, probably even some catacombs, and lit another candle. This candle ceremony was to symbolize the eternal living light of Christ. Jesus was seen as the light that would never go out. As the believers worshiped with this lit candle in their midst, they were reminded of the resurrected Lord, the everlasting Spirit of Jesus that brought His body back to mortal life, never to be snuffed out again. The Phos Hilaron was sung during this candle ceremony as they worshiped the risen Christ.

Phos Hilaron was originally written in Greek, and then translated to Latin and to countless other languages. It was finally translated into English in 1834 by Kebel in a way that could be put to music. Many musical settings have followed. The verbatim translation from the original Greek is this:

O Light gladsome of the holy glow 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: 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.”

There are a number of other English translations, including the one in the Book of Common Prayer on page 139. For some reason though, the translation placed the word “gracious” in place of gladdening, which seems to miss the point.

No holy Feast in the Hebrew Bible captured the meaning of joy and light quite like the Feast of Tabernacles. Light was a featured component of that celebration ever since the light of the Shekinah glory fell on the Temple during Solomon’s dedication. This took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, and the light of His presence descended from heaven to light the fire on the altar (1 Kings 8, 2 Chron. 7). Light was therefore a dominant theme throughout this Feast. The Feast of Tabernacles became the most popular Feast with the Jewish people, the most highly anticipated Feast, because it was so filled with joy and the dramatics of the Light Ceremony.

Place yourself in the crowded Temple during Jesus’ day. It is filled to overflowing with Jewish pilgrims who have come from every village in Israel, and many faithful Jews have traveled in large caravans from foreign countries to be a part of the festivities. Because the Feast includes the Festival of Booths to commemorate the Lord’s presence and care during the 40-year wilderness journey, there are makeshift booths everywhere, lining the streets of Jerusalem and dotting the countryside surrounding the city. Literally hundreds of campfires lit up the hills and fields near Jerusalem, and all the pilgrims grew increasingly excited as the night fell.

The crowded Temple during the Feast at night captured the hearts of the people, for this is what they  would see and experience in the courtyard… There were four towering lampstands in the center of the court, stories high, each with four branches of oil lamps. Their wicks were made from the worn out linen garments of the priests. Each lampstand had four long ladders leading up to the lamps, all of which were kept burning throughout the night. The giant lampstands were continually being filled by young priests carrying large pitchers of olive oil. The brilliant lights beaming from these huge lampstands could be seen throughout Jerusalem. The drama continues… All night long elders of the Sanhedrin performed impressive torch dances while the bright lights of the lampstands illumined the Temple and the streets of the city. It called to mind the Shekinah glory from Solomon’s day, as well as the glory of the Lord shining in the night sky during the wilderness wanderings.

To add to the excitement during the Light Ceremony, after the torch dances a group of priests would stand at the top of the fifteen steps that led down to the courtyard. At the sound of the Temple musicians on their flutes, trumpets and harps, the priests would sing the fifteen Psalms of Degrees (Psalms 120-134). With every new psalm, they descended to the next step until they completed the psalms at the bottom step. Can you imagine the excitement in the crowd as they repeated this Light Ceremony every night from the 2nd night to the final 7th night? It was all done in the spirit of worship, and it was the best show in town.

Joy and light were not the only themes during the Feast of the Tabernacles. The other main theme was Messiah. During the Light Ceremony the people were dramatically minded of the prophesied return of the Shekinah light during the days of the promised Messiah (Ezek. 43:1-6).  So in the Jewish mind light and Messiah were intimately connected. The people would know about the rabbinic insight that light was often used in Scripture as a reference to the Messiah… star out of Jacob, sun of righteousness, light of the nations, light of Israel, the refiner’s fire, the burning lamp. Thus the anticipation of the Messiah was at a fever pitch during this Feast.

Jesus chose that particular day, the day right after the Feast of the Tabernacles, to teach in the Temple. This was immediately following the national focus on light and Messiah. Jesus declared in the Temple, “I AM the light of the world!” (John 8:12). Not only did He claim here, with His I AM statement, that He was in spiritual union with and equal to Yahweh, but He also claimed that he was what this whole Light Ceremony was all about! He said that He lights up the world just like these lampstands lit up the Temple. In being the light, Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of messianic Scripture. He is claiming to be the Messiah! Later that same day, Jesus repeated this claim when He healed the blind man… “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Could Jesus have been any clearer as to His divine identity? It was just as Matthew put it, “You who spend your days shrouded in darkness can now say, ‘We have seen a brilliant light.’ And those who live in the dark shadow land of death can now say, ‘The dawning light arises on us.” (Matt. 4:16, Isaiah 9:2).

When speaking of light, we naturally recall Creation. The first thing God did was speak light into mortal existence. “Let there be light!” Here we find that the first creature was light, but that may not be the last we see of it. What if creation of light is actually a continuous process, the first substance which is imbedded into all the further aspects of creation? Could light be a material, an ingredient, with which all things are made? It certainly seems so, since scientists have now discovered that all objects produce light, in the form of electromagnetic waves! The Orthodox Jewish mystic rabbi Tzvi Freeman suggests as much when he said God’s first words were not just a declaration, but also a mandate for the rest of creation. He suggests that everything will be impregnated with light, a substance in all creation. It’s interesting that this has now been proven if we follow the science. It does seem that light is the inherent stuff of life on earth. “When God said ‘Let there be light,” He set the purpose and meaning of everything about to be created. That it should become light.” Just so, believing in the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, fulfills our destiny as we become light-bearers. “In His light, we see light.” (Ps. 36:9). And in His light we become light.

Yahweh God is considered to be light, since Scripture tells us that He “wraps Himself in light as with a robe.” (Ps. 104:1); He is the “Father of lights” (James 1:17); He dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16); He is a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24); He is our sun and shield, our light and salvation (Ps. 27:1); We are also told by God Himself to pray that His face shine upon us.” (Numbers 6:25). John even baldly declares, “God is light.” (1 John 1:5). And so it follows that the Father of lights has a Son who is the light of the world. Jesus is “God from God, light from light.‘ (Nicene Creed). Is it any wonder that, as the life-light of Jesus was flickering and then snuffed out on the cross, the sun could not shine? When the light of the world died, the world became dark.

Jesus literally revealed His unearthly light on the Mount of Transfiguration. He normally didn’t engage in dazzling light shows, but during His mountaintop prayer He unveiled His glory-light (Luke 9:28-36). In full view of Peter, James and John, there suddenly was a bright, dense cloud surrounding Jesus. His face shone like the sun, His body radiated heavenly glory. His clothes became as white as light, so bright that His three disciples had to look away. The glorified Jesus was even seen talking with two heavenly luminaries, Moses and Elijah. For the most part, Jesus didn’t reveal His heavenly light. He let His preaching, healing and befriending show His earthly light to those around Him. For this brief time, His true heavenly colors shone through.

The Transfiguration wasn’t the last time Jesus was seen full of light. Compare that scene on Mount Tabor with what John witnessed after the Ascension, in Revelation 1. “His head and hair were white like wool, and His eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (verses 14-16). In this case, Jesus appeared to be the light of heaven, not merely of the world. Now consider the Christophanie, the appearance of the preincarnate Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, found in Daniel 10:6. “His body was glistening, as if sculpted from a precious stone. His face was radiant like lightning, His eyes like flaming torches, His arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze.” Jesus is indeed the light of the world and the light of the heavens. He is the light of the universe.

As light-bearers, we are called to walk as Jesus walked, to let our little light shine. But how does our light-walk begin? In the Orthodox Church, baptism is known as the sacrament of Illumination. It is the time we are brought into the light. Baptism is the time when the new day dawns, and we start a new life. Baptism is when we put on the armor of light (Romans 13:12). When we are baptized, Christ shines His light on us, and we are called to walk in the light. Beginning with our baptism into the Triune God, we are called to be children of the light (Eph. 5:8). The love from God that has been ours since before we were conceived comes to us at the speed of light in baptism. Love at the speed of light. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second. Another way to put it, light travels at 670 million miles an hour, fast enough to go around the earth seven and a half times in one second. At baptism, love speeds towards us in this process of illumination, as fast and sure as God wills to make it. At the speed of light.

Our ultimate destiny as believers in the light of the world is to be filled with light, as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are filled with light. Our destiny is to be eternally living in the glory of God’s light. Our little flame will be ignited by the Holy Fire. We will wear light like a robe as we finally live in unapproachable light. No longer will we need to put on the armor of light, but instead we will slip into our luxurious robe of divine light. No longer will we depend on the sun, moon and stars for our light, for “the Lord will be our everlasting light, and our God will be our glory.” (Isaiah 60:19).

When we claim that Jesus is the light, when we worship the Triune God of light, we joyfully raise our voices to sing, “Hail, Gladdening Light.” Hail, Jesus, we want nothing more than to see the light of your face. Let it shine upon us, Lord. (Ps. 4:6).

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, 

Christ will shine on you and give you light.” (Eph. 5:14).

 

And now for some music. The first two are recordings of Phos Hilaron, one classical and one jazz. Then we have a rousing version of Blind Willie Johnson’s classic performed by a gospel choir. Enjoy.

O Gladsome Light – GENTRI / Lyceum Philharmonic at American Heritage School #LIGHTtheWORLD – YouTube

 

Phos Hilaron (O Gladsome Light) – YouTube

 

Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir – Shine On Me – YouTube

2 Replies to “Phos Hilaron – Joy and Light”

  1. Thank you Steve for this timely and illuminating post. Hail gladdening light, may it be so in all the world!

  2. Been reading over this one…it for sure blew my mind. “Jesus chose that particular day, the day right after the Feast of the Tabernacles, to teach in the Temple. This was immediately following the national focus on light and Messiah. Jesus declared in the Temple, “I AM the light of the world!” (John 8:12). Not only did He claim here, with His I AM statement, that He was in spiritual union with and equal to Yahweh, but He also claimed that he was what this whole Light Ceremony was all about!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *