Home History of Hymns: Hymn honors Christ child as the "Brightest and Best"

History of Hymns: Hymn honors Christ child as the "Brightest and Best"

“Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning”
Reginald Heber

Brightest and best of the sons [stars]* of the morning;
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

With this column, I break with tradition and write about a hymn that is neither in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) nor its supplement, The Faith We Sing (2000) — though it appeared in the previous hymnal, The Book of Hymns (1966). The reason is two-fold: First, this is one of the great hymns of the Romantic tradition and, second, it is a wonderful expression of the season of Epiphany.

Reginald Heber

“Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning” (the original title) was written by Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826), one of the finest Romantic hymn writers. Heber was born into a family of wealth and position. He was bright and a diligent student of the Bible, even at a young age, as was evidenced by his Latin studies at age seven, translating a classical Latin text into English. Heber entered Oxford at 17 and soon won two prizes for poetry.

He took orders in the Anglican Church in 1807 and became a rector in his father’s church in the village of Hodnet near Shrewsbury. During his 16 years at this parish, he took on the task of improving hymn singing in the congregation. When he arrived, they were still singing only metrical psalms. He couldn’t find the hymns he wanted, especially those that would fit the Anglican liturgy and the requirements of the Book of Common Prayer.

Heber decided to prepare his own hymnal and invited other poets to contribute, including Sir Walter Scott and Henry Milman. Hymn singing was not firmly established in the Anglican Church at this time, and the bishop of London refused Heber’s request to publish a hymnal. “Brightest and Best” was thus first published in the Christian Observer in November 1811 before his wife Amelia Heber published it in 1827 as Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Service of the Church Year. Heber’s most famous hymn is “Holy, Holy, Holy” (UM Hymnal, No. 64).

In 1823 Heber was appointed the Bishop of Calcutta. He was known for his tireless labor, enthusiasm and administrative abilities. He died prematurely in 1826 in India on a trip to Trichinopoly, epitomizing what British hymnologist J.R. Watson calls “the dedicated missionary-bishop, giving his life for the furtherance of the gospel.”

Images of light, a dominant theme of the Epiphany season, pervade the hymn’s first stanza: “brightest,” “morning,” “dawn,” “star” and “horizon.” The “Star of the East” that once guided the magi now guides us to “where our infant Redeemer is laid.”

The second stanza begins with strikingly Romantic images:

Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining,
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall:
Angels adore him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Savior of all.

The “cold” and “low” estate with the “beasts of the stall” in the first two lines is placed in antithesis to the “angels” who adore the “Maker and Monarch” (a beautiful example of alliteration) and the “Savior of all.”

The third stanza uses the device of two rhetorical questions. We are following the “Star of the East” with the magi and are asked about what gifts we have to offer:

Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest or gold from the mine?

The original fourth stanza brings in a different theme. Unlike the magi, we have no opulent gifts to offer.

Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure,
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

The final line of this stanza can be looked at in at least two ways. On the one hand, the mention of the “prayers of the poor” indicates that regardless of our station in life, we have something more valuable than the wealth of the magi of history or today: “the heart’s adoration.”

This hymn was written early in Heber’s career, before he knew his ministry would take him to the poverty of India to serve in the East. In a sense, the image of stanza two where the infant in a lowly cattle stall is worshipped by angels as the “Maker and Monarch . . . of all” is reversed: Bishop Heber, described by hymnologist Albert Bailey as “the darling of fortune,” died among the poor of Calcutta.

The final stanza repeats the first exactly, providing bookends to one of the classic hymns of the Epiphany season.

* Recent hymnals change “sons” to “stars.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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