Like a candle flame

Desmond Tutu.
Photographer Lord Ru, image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Like a candle flame’ by Graham Kendrick.  It’s a simple, gentle song of the Nativity, at least at the start – ‘Flickering small in our darkness, uncreated light shines through infant eyes’.  The second verse gives a hint that there is more to come from this miraculous baby: ‘Can this tiny spark set a world on fire?’

The last verse bursts forth in splendour: ‘Yet his light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing, as we touch the flame of his holy fire’.  For through Christ’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit he not only brings the light of God’s truth and love to the world, but sometimes too the ‘blazing’ of signs of power. 

Those who stay at the manger miss the real implications of the birth. Just this morning we heard of the death on Christmas Day of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and our vicar referenced this in his sermon on St Stephen, the first Christian martyr whose feast day we celebrate.  Tutu wasn’t a martyr in the sense of being killed for his faith, but he did share the martyrs’ courageous faith that meant preaching the truth (in his case, the truth of the equality of black and homosexual people) at a risk to his own job and possibly life.  Here was a man in whom the Spirit of Jesus blazed. 

O Oriens: People, look East!

Dawn over the Bay of Bengal
(c) Stephen Craven

I didn’t get round to blogging about a hymn on 21 December for the good reason that I was working during the day, and out most of the evening carol singing around the streets with neighbours (OK, and in the pub for a couple of drinks to warm up afterwards).

The hymn I picked for the 21st, when the Advent antiphon was ‘O Oriens’, is the appropriately titled ‘People look east’.  There is a well known hymn of that name, and that’s what I thought I had picked, but this is a total re-write of it by Martin Leckebusch to the same tune.

The phrase “People look east” is intended to suggest that as we look to the east awaiting the new light of dawn, so we look that way (which is also nominally the direction of Jerusalem as seen from Europe) as we wait for Christ to appear.  The image above (not the first time I have used it this year) is a photo I took in southern India, where every day the dawn is celebrated in prayer by Christian, Muslim and Hindu alike.

Unlike the hymns and readings of the earlier part of Advent that seem to focus on our own sinfulness and the judgement that awaits the unrepentant, this one celebrates the good things we can expect when Christ returns. The first is enlightenment: ‘see a brighter day is dawning, rich with the visions long foretold’.  The second is God’s welcome: ‘comfort enough for all our sorrows, justice shaping new tomorrows’, in which we are ‘freed to praise and serve the Lord’.

The third verse speaks of how the coming dawn will put dark fears to flight and clear the clouds of gloom.  That is reminiscent of words from ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’, another great Advent hymn (not in the Sing Praise book). In one translation this is ‘As the light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day, that the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away’.

In contrast to this vision of the triumphant Lord of Creation descending from heaven to execute justice on earth, the last verse focuses on the humanity of Jesus: ‘Born of our race, a child so small, hail the promised Lord of all! Nailed to a cross for our salvation’. Yet the last line takes us back to the future: ‘See, he comes in power to reign!’

Longing for light

The hymn I chose for today from Sing Praise is ‘Longing for light, we wait in darkness’ by Bernadette Farrell.  Although included in the Advent section of the book, It isn’t specifically an Advent hymn in the way that ‘O Come, Emmanuel’ is for instance, or ‘Lo he comes’. It’s one that I have sung or heard at any time of year, as its theme is the things that people long for, of which light is only one example.  As I mentioned in the blog for 7 April, it is a variation of Farrell’s Easter Eve hymn  ‘This is the night of new beginnings’.  But it is appropriate for the start of Advent, perhaps especially this year as yesterday was also the start of Hannukah, the Jewish festival of light.

What, then, do we long for?  The first four verses each list some of the longings that people share, in our own families or around the world.  For light and truth; for peace and hope, for food and water, for shelter and warmth.  To each there is a response as we ask Christ to make us, his Church, a light for others. ‘Light for the world to see’, ‘Your living voice’, ‘Bread broken for others’, ‘Your building, sheltering others’.  Finally we ask that we be ‘servants to one another, making your Kingdom come’.  

The chorus after each verse is “Christ be our light, shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness. Christ be our light, shine in your church gathered today”. This is another reminder that we are part of a larger whole, the worldwide Church. This is another aspect of Advent: seeing the needs of the world around, and not just praying that God will do something about it but that we his people may be part of the solution.

Safe in the hands of God

The Oxford University crest, the opening line of Psalm 27

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Safe in the hands of God’ by Michael Perry. The suggested tune is a Scottish one, ‘Bunillidh’, but John wrote his own. 

It’s a setting of Psalm 27, one of the more positive psalms, and the first line of which, “The Lord is my light” (in Latin) is well known to any Oxford student as the University motto (see image above). Michael Perry rearranges the lines so that doesn’t appear at the start of this hymn.  The themes of psalm and hymn are that God lights our path and acts as our salvation if we trust him and follow in his way.

‘Salvation’ here doesn’t mean particularly having our sins forgiven and becoming part of the Christian church, which is the more common Christian use of the term. In the sense used here, it refers more to offering protection, saving us from the harm caused by evil in ourselves or from other people, or making whole (the Latin ‘salus’ can also mean ‘health’).

Light of Gladness

Lights at the Candlemas service,
Drighlington St Paul, 2020

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another evening hymn by Christopher Idle, ‘Light of gladness, Lord of glory’. It is set here to the tune ‘Quem pastores laudavere’. The tune, whose name refers to shepherds, is not surprisingly in the form of a berceuse (pastoral chant or lullaby), also appropriate for an evening hymn.

The words are a setting of the ancient evening hymn ‘Phos hilaron’ (light of joy) which is usually thought of as an evening hymn, though there is only a passing reference to evening. Maybe the intention is to contrast the fading of daylight with the eternal light of Christ.

The first and last verses praise Jesus specifically, addressed first as ‘light of gladness, Lord of glory’ and asking him to ‘shine on us in your mercy’, and later as Son of God, with no petition but praising him as the one whose light shall never grow dim.  In between is a doxology (‘Father, Son and Spirit praising with the holy Seraphim’), which usually would come at the end of the hymn: is this the order of the Greek original, I wonder?

The rhyming scheme is unusual:  the first three lines of each verse are mostly half-rhymes (glory/holy/mercy, descending/evening/praising, ages/praises/ceases) and the last lines of the three verses form a rhyming set (hymn/seraphim/dim).

Eternal light

Sunrise over the Bay of Bengal
(c) Stephen Craven

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Eternal light, shine in my heart” by Christopher Idle.  John noted in Morning Prayer that this is actually an evening hymn, but as it makes reference to light and brightness it seems equally applicable to morning use. John also set it to the tune of ‘Colours of Day’ which certainly is a morning hymn.

The most frequent word in this hymn, though, is ‘eternal’, used nine times. The Almighty is addressed as the eternal light, hope, power, wisdom, life, brightness, Spirit, Saviour and God.   I’m reminded that the Biblical vision of eternal life is of a place where, in the words of another hymn, “they need no created light” for Christ is “its sun which goes not down”.  And as it says in Psalm 139 “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

The image I selected for today was taken when visiting Christian development projects in India some years ago. I have a framed print of it, with the words of Proverbs 4:18, “the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter until the full light of day.” If we have eternal life, then evening and morning are equally times to praise God for his spiritual enlightenment.

Lord, you have searched me and known me

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us” which is a chant from the Taizé community. Like many of their chants it takes the form of a repeated refrain or ostinato to be sung by the congregation, and a series of verses to be sung over them by a soloist (cantor). 

The verses in this instance are selected from Psalm 139, “Lord, you have searched me and known me”.  The selected verses remind us that God is everywhere, and knows all that we do, however we might think we are beyond his reach: whether asleep or awake, at home or far away, by day or by night.  This can of course be either a scary or a comforting thought, depending on whether we are secretly ashamed of our behaviour, or in difficulty and really needing his support.   

The last verse is “Search me, God, and know my heart, and lead me in the everlasting way”. The purpose of God’s all-knowing perception is not to punish us for the things of which we are ashamed, but gently to correct, or to direct us when we are uncertain which way to take in life.

The ostinato or refrain is not taken from the psalm, but is perhaps a Christian response to the third of the verses (Ps. 139:11) about the darkness being as light to God: “Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let not my darkness speak to me. Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let my heart always welcome your love”. The darkness, here, may (depending on our circumstances) represent depression, doubt or uncertainty, rather than a conviction of sin. Whatever its nature, Jesus can bring light to the situation.

This is the night of new beginnings

Easter Vigil at the church of the Ascension, Oak Park, IL, USA

Today’s hymn choice from Sing Praise is “This is the night of new beginnings” by Bernadette Farrell. The tune and the words of the chorus are the same as her hymn “Longing for light”.  At first I thought the present hymn an adaptation of that one, but see John’s comment below, that this hymn dates from 1990 & 1991, and “Longing for light” is later (1993).

These original words, then, are intended for the Easter vigil. This ceremony is observed by some, but by no means all, church congregations, either at sunset on Easter eve or sunrise on Easter morning depending on local preference).  Neither is ‘wrong’, for who can say at what moment Christ was resurrected between the start of the Sabbath (Friday evening) when the women went home and the rising of the sun on Easter Sunday when they returned?  The emphasis varies with the chosen time: if at sunset, it’s about entering the darkness, the loss of contact with God as Jesus his son has died (while also anticipating the resurrection).  We do need this in our spiritual lives, an acknowledgement that sometimes God seems absent and life seems hopeless, and faith in the resurrection seems a distant hope. 

If the vigil takes place around sunrise, it begins in sombre darkness, often gathered around a fire, but as the day dawns the Easter candle is lit from the fire and carried into church with great shouts of “The light of Christ!” and “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” 

This year, of course, it was all different. At our church at least, the Covid restrictions meant there was no singing other than the Vicar’s wife singing an Easter song quietly outside the church, and a strong wind meant that the Easter candle had to be lit indoors (there was no fire anyway: our service is not at dawn).

But back to the words of the hymn. Both options above seem to be covered: verse 1 speaks of the “night of new beginnings” (a reminder to me of an Easter sermon by the late Revd Val Clarke who described the Christian life lived in the light of the Resurrection as “the land of Begin-Again”). Verse 2 is about the “night Christ our Redeemer rose from the grave triumphant and free”. The middle verse speaks of the fire kindled in darkness to dispel the shadows of night. 

Verse 4, which should probably be marked with an increase in volume and maybe tempo, urges people to “Sing of the hope deeper than dying, sing of the power stronger than death, sing of the love endless as heaven, dawning throughout the earth”. I love those words: it reminds us that the Easter celebration is not for the individual, nor just the local congregation nor even the totality of Christians worldwide, a billion strong though we are.  No, Easter is for the whole of creation to sing praise to our redeeming God.

Finally, as the sun rises perhaps, the last verse proclaims that “into this world morning is breaking” and calls God’s people to “lift up your voice, cry out with joy, tell out the story, all of the earth rejoice!”  

The chorus after each verse is “Christ be our light, shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness. Christ be our light, shine in your church gathered today”. This is another reminder that we are part of a larger whole.

Bright as fire in darkness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Bright as fire in darkness”, words attributed to Stanbrook Abbey. We have already had one of their other compositions, “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, on 14 January.

This is a very short hymn, comprising just three verses, each four lines of five or six syllables. Yesterday’s theme of the Word of God appears here too, revealed at the end of verse 1: “Bright as fire in darkness, sharper than a sword, lives throughout the ages God’s eternal Word”.  Note that ‘Word’ is capitalised to make it clear it refers to the person of the Trinity revealed in Jesus.  And as with yesterday, the Word is seen to be active – fire and sword are not static images, nor are they signs of safety. There are risks involved when we engage with the Word of God.

The second verse also refers to the ‘word’ – “Christ, your eyes of mercy see our sins revealed; speak the word that saves us, that we may be healed”.   Forgiveness, salvation and healing are not three separate things but three aspects of the work of the Word of God.  Note that this time ‘word’ is not capitalised – is there a meaningful distinction between the person of the Word who lives throughout the ages, and the spoken word that saves us?  Is salvation not through the Word himself, rather than the spoken (or written) word? 

In the last verse the first two lines are a standard doxology (praise to the Trinity) followed by “compassed in your glory, give the world your light”. The reference to light brings us full circle to where we started – ‘bright as fire’. So may we be.

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New light has dawned

Today’s song, continuing the Candlemas theme, is “New light has dawned, the son of God is here” by Paul Wigmore. In terms of Biblical stories of Jesus, the first three verses cover the incarnation, the announcement to the shepherds (but surprisingly not the magi), the presentation to Simeon (meriting its inclusion among hymns for this season) and the later episode where the adolescent Jesus debates theology with the Temple priests in Jerusalem. The common thread is that anyone who encounters Jesus encounters light, whether through a prophetic word or an apparition of angels.

The qualities of the Christ-light are listed here: it is “a holy light no earthly light outshines”, “the light that casts out fear”, “the light that evil dreads and love defines”, “the light of glory”, and quoting Simeon “the light to lighten gentile eyes”. The fourth verse is our response to Christ as we acclaim him “the light who came to us on earth”.

But what does the “light of Christ” mean to us ordinary believers who haven’t met an angel or had an extraordinary gift of prophecy?  It’s hard to put into words but here’s the best way I can express  it: when Christ is present in my life, there is an optimism to life, a sense that whatever ups and down I experience in physical health or the stresses of work, something or someone is ‘shining down on me’.  When I experience this, even if I shut my eyes so that I see no natural light, it is as if I’m still in a well lit room, not a dark one.  Does that tally with Wigmore’s description?  Fairly well – it certainly casts out fear, or at least anxiety, it can be glorious, and lightens the eyes of this particular gentile.  But what about “the light that evil dreads and love defines”?

This light is not something I experience all the time. Most Christians will agree that love for God is like love for your partner in that after the first few years of excitement, the relationship can easily be taken for granted and the spark of love goes out – not that you dislike your partner or Lord or want to disown them, just that the light of love has gone dim. That’s why the last lines of the hymn ask Christ to “renew the faith you gave at our new birth, destroy the dark, and let your light come in”.  

I’m attending a ‘quiet day’ tomorrow, usually held in a retreat centre but this time with the devotional talks on Zoom and time away from the computer to reflect at home in between them.  I pray Christ will enlighten me again, and pray that for you too.