History of Hymns: "Christ Is the World's Light"
"Christ Is the World’s Light"
Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 188
Christ is the world’s light, Christ and none other;
born in our darkness, he became our brother.
If we have seen him, we have seen the Father:
Glory to God on high!*
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was born in Roby, just outside of Liverpool, England, to Charles Green and Hannah Greenwood. His parents were both very successful business owners as well as proving to be a strong religious influence over young Fred.
The youngest of three children, Green was born into a Christian home that he described as “a place where religion was scrupulously observed but never made burdensome.”
Following his education, Green was ordained in 1924, continuing his ministry in various parishes throughout England well into the 1940s. As a minister, he rarely had time for outside interests, but when he met the devout poet Fallon Webb, he was instantly fascinated. The two would continue exchanging poetry for nearly 20 years until Webb’s death. Their friendship set the stage for Green’s ability to be such an astounding poet.
Although he long had an interest in poetry, Green did not focus on hymn writing until he retired from active ministry. After a long and frutiful life of 97 years, he passed on Oct. 22, 2000, leaving behind a legacy of ministry filled with words of wisdom.
Green’s hymns reflect his concern with social issues. Many were written to supply obvious liturgical needs of the modern church, such as specific seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Others speak to topics for which there were few traditional hymns available.
Eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley noted that with some exceptions, the Methodist influence in hymnody had declined since the hymns and translations of the Wesley brothers.
This changed in 1969, when a supplement to the Methodist hymnal, Hymns and Songs, was released in Great Britain. Routley stated that “this [trend of few significant Methodist hymn writers] has changed; it has been irreversibly changed by Fred Pratt Green.”
“Christ is the world’s light” was written at the request of the hymnal committee for a text to accompany the tune CHRISTE SANCTORUM for the British Methodist hymnal, Hymns and Songs.
The tune with an unusual meter (220.127.116.11) comes from the Paris Antiphoner (1681), a collection of music for Latin hymns. The melody, ideal for the natural stresses of the Latin language, presented Green with problems in English, but he overcame them by repeating the words at the end of the first three lines of stanzas, 1, 2, and 3: “other,” “brother” and “Father.”
The original title is “The Uniqueness of Christ,” and is based on John 8:12, Ephesians 2:14, John 1:4 and particularly, John 14:9: “The one who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Each stanza begins with a descriptive assertion of Christ’s uniqueness: stanza 1—“Christ is the world’s light” (John 1:4 and 8:12); stanza 2—“Christ is the world’s peace” (Ephesians 2:14); and stanza 3—“Christ is the world’s life” (John 1:4). The final stanza is Trinitarian, “giv[ing] glory [to the] Spirit, Son, and Father.”
One of the most important recurring themes of this hymn is the nature of our relationship to Christ—he is our brother. At birth, Christ “became our brother” (stanza 1); in his passion, our brother was “murdered here” (stanza 3); in the final stanza, “God with us” is “my brother.” Christ, the son of God, walked alongside us as our own brother.
The recurring line at the end of every stanze, “Glory to God on high,” is a refrain that focuses the entire hymn on exclaiming the glory of God.