Hail, Gladsome Light!

This time of year, the nativity sequences of Matthew and Luke are center stage in Scripture reading—and rightly so, of course—but I must confess that my favorite Gospel opening for Christmas is still the cosmic, wide-angle shot of John 1: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not […] That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (v. 4-5, 9, KJV).

Reading this today brought to mind the Phos Hilaron, the wonderful hymn generally considered the oldest in the Christian tradition, dating back to sometime in the 2nd century, and still in use in Eastern Orthodox, and (in translation) Catholic and Anglican liturgy. My first experience with this hymn was actually as part of a contemporary worship song sung at a non-denominational evangelical church. As Robert Taft wrote in The Liturgy of the Hours East and West, this hymn “is a praise to Christ who is the true light shining the darkness of the world and illuminating […] all men” (Taft, 1986: 38). Its original liturgical setting was at the lighting of candles at matins and vespers (i.e., early morning and evening), though Christmas strikes me as quite an appropriate moment to hail the coming of the world’s true light, which, as John so perfectly saw, arrives amid growing darkness.

I’ve inserted the Greek text below (courtesy of OrthodoxWiki), with a halting translation of my own (cheating in a couple places using the English translation on the same page, but only when I really got stuck):

Φώς ιλαρόν αγίας δόξης αθανάτου Πατρός, ουρανίου, αγίου, μάκαρος, Ιησού Χριστέ, ελθόντες επί την ηλίου δύσιν, ιδόντες φώς εσπερινόν, υμνούμεν Πατέρα, Υιόν και Άγιον Πνεύμα, Θεόν. Άξιόν σε εν πάσι καιροίς, υμνείσθαι φωναίς αισίαις, Υιέ Θεού, ζωήν ο διδούς· Διό ο κόσμος σε δοξάζει.

Gladsome light of the holy glory of the deathless Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ: coming upon the setting sun, beholding evening light, we worship God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right in all times to worship you with voices of praise, Son of God, Giver of Life; therefore the world glorifies you.

*I had a particularly difficult time rendering αισίαις, which is clearly related to the verb αἰνέω, meaning, “I praise,” but seems to be rather a second cousin than a sister. Robert Taft translates it, “auspicious” (Taft, 1986: 38). Any Greek lovers (er, lovers of Greek?) out there who can help me? John? 

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One Response to “Hail, Gladsome Light!”

  1. Don’t look at me for Greek translation. I just this week sat down with a Greek alphabet and transliterated for the first time. (I’d never done it before!)

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