History of Hymns: 'Now It Is Evening'
By Cristen Mitchell
“Now It Is Evening”
by Fred Pratt Green
The Faith We Sing, 2187
Now it is evening
Lights of the city
Bid us remember
Christ is our light.
Many are lonely,
Who will be neighbor?
Where there is caring
Christ is our light.*
*©1974 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved.
The tradition of evening hymns extends to the beginning of Christian worship. One of the earliest Christian hymns for evening prayer is the Greek “Phos hilaron” (“O Gladsome Light,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 686), a lamp-lighting hymn. Monastic offices employ evening prayers (compline). Other famous evening hymns include “Day Is Dying in the West” (1878), written for the Chautauqua Assembly by Mary Lathbury (1841–1913); “God Who Madest Earth and Heaven” (1827) by Anglican missionary, Bishop Reginald Heber (1783–1826); and “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” (1870), by Victorian hymnist John Ellerton (1826–1893).
Fred Pratt Green (1903–2000), author of “Now It Is Evening,” received his education at Didsbury College in Manchester and was ordained in 1928. Green eventually chose Methodism because of its openness and welcoming eucharistic practices, and he served circuits throughout England until 1969.
Green reflects an ecumenical spirit throughout his life and his hymns. At the World Congress of Faiths in 1935, Green discovered the through-line of mystery and ethics at the root of all religions. After hearing that one of his hymns had been used at a Papal Mass in Australia in 1986, he said, “it gives me enormous pleasure that any of my hymns should cross ecclesiastical barriers” (Braley, 2003, pp. 409–410). His texts follow themes such as creation, justice, Trinity, and praise, and they give voice to victims who have experienced violence and neglect (Andrews, 2013, p. 29; Tonsing, 2019, p. 4). We continue to glean from his texts in the twenty-first century when we sing of themes like care for immigrants and urban life (Kimbrough, 1985, p.63).
Paul Westermeyer suggests making columns of the non-repeating text to visualize the meaning (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 410):
|Lights of the city||Christ our light||Lonely||Caring|
|Children sleeping||Christ our peace||Neglected||Caring|
|Food at the table||Christ our life||Hungry||Sharing|
|Meeting||Christ our friend||Strangers||Welcome|
“Now It Is Evening” can be used in an evening prayer as a reflection of “Phos Hilaron” (c. 200 CE), which is the oldest surviving Christian hymn. Stanza one recalls this early Christian Greek evening hymn. Pratt Green extends the meaning of the ancient lamp-lighting hymn beyond a joyful light emanating from Christ to the idea of Christ as the light (John 8:12) that illumines the darkness and brings hope to the lonely. Stanza two extends Christ’s peace to “neglected” children, who will sleep in jeopardy and need. Pratt Green emphasizes caring for others, not only young children, but children of God who are all ages (Col 3:15, John 1:12–13).
Stanza three asserts that “Christ is our life.” Pratt Green connects the “food on the table” for physical sustenance with the bread of life (John 6:35). Green emphasizes here that in sharing bread with our neighbor, Christ is our life. Sharing bread is also a link to Holy Communion. Green’s appreciation for the openness of the table in Methodism is evoked in this stanza – “Many are hungry. Who will be neighbor?” Stanza four reminds us that Christ is our friend, and because Christ is our friend, we should befriend and welcome strangers (Matt 25:35–46).
“Now It Is Evening” was commissioned by an over-sixties club in England in 1973 for their anniversary celebrations. The text was specifically commissioned to be set to the tune, BUNESSAN, which is most closely related to the text “Morning Has Broken” by Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965). Later, this text won a contest sponsored by the Presbytery of Albany for the United Presbyterian Church for hymns with “sex-inclusive terminology” (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 572).
BOZEMAN by Rusty Edwards (b. 1955) and BUNESSAN are most likely to be paired with “Now It Is Evening.” However, EVENING HYMN by David Haas (b. 1957) appears in The Faith We Sing and most other hymnals. The BOZEMAN tune employs twentieth-century, bitonal harmony beneath a simple, singable melody, matching Green’s text to our modern context (Westermeyer, 2010, p.410–411). BUNESSAN reminds us of our daily cycles, the parallels of our Christian seasons, and even the earth’s seasons, by using a text for evening while singing a tune where many would think of morning.
Emily Snider Andrews, “Hymns and Doctrine: God’s Transcendence and Immanence.” The Hymn: Journal of Congregational Song; Fort Worth, Texas, 64, no. 1, (Winter 2013): 28–34, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015080975876&view=1up&seq=38 (accessed May 19, 2021).
Jesse D. Billett, “A Spirituality of the Word: The Medieval Roots of Traditional Anglican Worship,” Pro Ecclesia 27, no. 2 (2018):157–176.
Bernard Braley, “The Hymns of Fred Pratt Green.” The Expository Times, 114, no. 12 (September 1, 2003), 409–412.
F. L. Cross and Livingstone, E. A. eds., “Phos Hilaron, ” https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780192802903.001.0001/acref-9780192802903-e-5386 (accessed January 5, 2021).
Maureen Harris, “Fred Pratt Green,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/f/fred-pratt-green (accessed February 21, 2021).
Annette Jung, “Phos Hilaron,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/phos-hilaron (accessed February 21, 2021).
Scott M. Kershner, “Worship in the Wilderness: Experiments in Liturgy and Ecology,” Liturgy, 32, no. 4 (2017): 40–46.
ST Kimbrough Jr., “Hymns Are Theology,” Theology Today 42, no.1 (April 1, 1985): 59–68.
Berry Newman, “Chez Ryder,” The NGO Journal (May 31, 1997), https://issuu.com/norfolkorganistsassociation/docs/020_20summer_201997 (accessed January 5, 2021).
J. Gertrud Tonsing, “Responses to Violence and Human Suffering in Christian Hymnody: A Study of Responses to Situations of Violence in the Work of Four Hymn Writers.” HTS Teologiese Studies, 75, no. 1 (January 1, 2019).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
Cristen Mitchell is the Director of Music Ministries at Blacksburg United Methodist Church in Blacksburg, VA, where she oversees a full music ministry. In addition, she is an assistant director of the Blacksburg Children’s Chorale and president of The Voices of Appalachia. She holds a B.M in Music Education from Radford University and an M.M. in Choral Conducting from James Madison University. Cristen is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music degree program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studies hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.