History of Hymns: “Christ, Be Our Light”
“Christ, Be Our Light,”
by Bernadette Farrell;
Upper Room Worshipbook, No. 114
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today.*
The Christian liturgical year contains two periods of intense introspection and preparation: Advent and Lent. Texts in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), especially from the prophets and gospels, point to hope, peace, and social justice. Those themes are easily found in Lenten congregational song; an abundance of Advent congregational song simply doesn’t exist.
Into this situation, the text of Bernadette Farrell (b. 1957) appears. Farrell has been writing texts and tunes since the 1970s. She began publishing with OCP (Oregon Catholic Press) in the 1980s, and her setting, “Christ, Be Our Light,” was composed in the early 1990s. Found in a number of denominational hymnals, including Glory to God, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and Gather, Farrell’s setting meets the needs of those who are following the Revised Common Lectionary and looking for new texts and tunes for congregational singing.
The words of the first stanza of “Christ, Be Our Light” fits themes of Advent. Hints of Isaiah 9:2 – “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light…” (NASB**) – point us to years A, B, and C of the RCL, when this text is used for the Nativity of the Lord. It is also a reading in year A on the third Sunday after Epiphany.
The second stanza suggests that, while there is a longing for God to come and be active in bringing peace and hope to the world, we share responsibility. An implicit desire to follow God’s word pushes Christians to become a voice for those in trouble or in despair. Hope, peace, joy, and love come to us from God, but Farrell’s implication is that we have responsibility to speak and shine light in darkness.
Farrell has long been a champion of social justice. Beyond her work as a lyricist and composer, she also serves as a community organizer in London. Her bent to social justice comes across clearly in the third and fourth stanzas of “Christ, Be Our Light” and also reinforces themes of Advent and Lent. In the third stanza, echoes of Isaiah 55:1-2 appear in reference to hunger and thirst (Third Sunday of Lent, year C; Easter Vigil in all years). Not only does Farrell’s text provide a prophetic witness, but it also eludes to the ministry of Jesus (feeding the 5,000, the Eucharist, etc.). The fourth stanza provides less influence of biblical text and more of Farrell’s theological bent. It refers to the homeless and the cold, again, partnering us with God in providing care and shelter.
Perhaps a look at the fifth stanza will help us understand this text more fully. The stanza references Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth (chapter 12). The church, full of people with gifts of the Spirit, brings the kingdom of God to earth when it serves God’s children. Yes, this text can be used during Advent and Lent, but the last stanza truly helps us to comprehend who the church is called to be and what the church is called to do. Using the gifts of God to serve one another meets the needs articulated in the earlier stanzas. Therefore, Farrell’s hymn is also appropriate for general use.
Beyond the hymn’s use in congregational singing (LOOKING FOR LIGHT is the only tune associated with this text), it may also be used in other musical settings for congregational worship. Joel Raney has set this text and tune for congregation, handbells, narration, piano, and SATB choir, for use in the lighting of Advent candles (Hope C 5851). Michael Burkhardt has set the tune twice as organ harmonizations in his collection As Though the Whole Creation Cried, v. 2 (MorningStar Music).
*©1994 by Bernadette Farrell, published by OCP Publications. Used with permission.
For further reading:
- “Bernadette Farrell,” OCP Website, https://www.ocp.org/en-us/artists/1092
- “Christ Be Our Light” at Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/longing_for_light_we_wait_in_darkness
**Bible verses marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.
About this week’s writer:
Jay Regennitter is an elder serving in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of The United Methodist Church, currently appointed to Robinson First UMC. Jay holds degrees in choral music education and organ performance from Western Illinois University. He has a Master of Divinity Degree from Duke Divinity School. He has served for eight years as annual conference organist, and as co-director of worship for the 2016 North Central Jurisdictional Conference. Having served in several roles with The Fellowship, Jay currently serves the organization as Development Coordinator. Jay’s recent spiritual renewal leave resulted in several new texts and tunes for congregational singing.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.