History of Hymns: "O Gladsome Light"
By C. Michael Hawn
"O Gladsome Light"
Ancient Greek hymn, translated by Robert Bridges
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 686
O gladsome light, O grace
Of our Creator's face,
The eternal splendor wearing;
Celestial, holy blest,
Our Savior Jesus Christ,
Joyful in your appearing!
When some people want to sing the “old” hymns, perhaps they should consider “O Gladsome Light.” This “Hymn for the Lighting of Lamps” was written anonymously in Greek as early as the third century, C.E. We have no notated music for this hymn until the seventeenth century. LE CANTIQUE LE SIMÉON (The Song of Simeon) used in The United Methodist Hymnal was composed by the famous Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1560) and harmonized by Claude Goudimel (c. 1514-1572), both musicians employed by John Calvin (1509-1564) to set metrical psalms to music. It is by far the most popular tune paired with this text.
Contemporary accounts from this time mention this hymn, “Phos hilaron” (“joyful light”) in Greek, including St. Basil the Great (d. 379), who did not know its origins because it was so old. A Spanish nun named Egeria (fourth century) left us an extensive diary of her journey to the Holy Land. She mentions the lucernarium, a ritual lamp lighting in the evening. By the end of the fourth century, the lucernarium was an established ritual of the Byzantine Church in Cappadocia, both for private vespers and as a part of the pubic cathedral office.
Christians in the early church lived much closer to the events of nature and progression of the seasons. Sunrise from the east brought not only a new day, but also the promise of hope for the coming Messiah. Evening brought potential danger and the mystery of the dark. Any light that penetrated the darkness was a welcome sight. Indeed, the “Phos hilaron” was followed in the liturgy by a reading of Psalm 141, beginning with, “Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips. Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity” (Psalm 141:1-4a, KJV).
We take light in the dark for granted, but this was not the case for early Christians. In contrast to a world shrouded in darkness, Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The Gospel of John, for example, gives us an understanding of the Christian view of light. The symbol of light in worship carried a particular meaning for the Christian that extended beyond the practical needs of seeing in the dark. The “Phos hilaron,” indeed, thanks God for the light and draws hope from the image of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World (John 8:12; 9:5).
For the early Christian, the liminal space between the fading light and the impending dark was an ideal time for prayer. Indeed, the second stanza refers directly to this in-between time:
As fades the day’s last light
we see the lamps of night,
our communion hymn outpouring,
O God of might unknown,
you, the Incarnate Son,
and Spirit blest adoring.
The “Phos Hilaron” is not only one of the earliest Christian hymns, but also one of the most frequently translated hymns into English. By the end of the nineteenth century alone, John Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology noted more than twenty poetic and prose versions in English. The strong Trinitarian orientation of this hymn is typical of early hymns.
The translation by Englishman Robert Seymour Bridges (1844-1930) is one of the most enduring and beautiful. Translated in 1899, “O Gladsome Light” appeared in many hymnals after being included in The English Hymnal (1906).
Bridges was a gifted poet of his day. Carlton Young notes that in addition to being an English poet laureate, Bridges was a scholar, hymnologist, musician, and physician. Forced to leave the field of medicine because of his health, Bridges turned to literature and hymnology. He prepared the Yattendon Hymnal (1899) in reaction to what he perceived to be the lesser literary quality of the earlier Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).
Bridges was awarded the LL.D. from the University of Michigan in 1924. He was also the author of original hymn texts. The United Methodist Hymnal contains four of his translations. Thanks to the translation work of Robert Bridges, we can sing a song with its roots in the earliest days of Christianity. Bridges’ translation of the final stanza is an exuberant paean of praise of the highest order:
To you of right belongs
all praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, life-giver.
You, therefore, O Most High,
the world does glorify
and shall exalt forever.