The Lamplighting Hymn
Hail! gladdening light
O gladsome light
O light, whose splendor thrills and gladdens
HAIL GLADDENING LIGHT
Text: Origins. The ritual practice of worshiping at the nightly lighting of the lamp goes back to Aaron and the tabernacle (Ex. 27:20-21, 28:1-8, 30:7-8; Lev. 24:1-4) and finds its fullest expression in Christ, the light who shines in the darkness (John 1:4-5; 3:19, 8:12, 9:5, 12:46). Likewise, Christ asked his followers to be bearers of the light (Matt. 5:14, Phil. 2:15).
Prior to Christ (as early as 45 B.C.), Greeks had a practice of greeting the evening lamplighting with the exclamation, “Hail, good light.” The practice was later Christianized. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 211), in his Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Greeks) admonished believers to greet God with a similar expression, “Hail, O light”:
Away then, away with our forgetfulness of the truth! Let us remove the ignorance and darkness that spreads like a mist over our sight, and let us get a vision of the true God, first raising to Him this voice of praise, “Hail, O light.”
This particular lamplighting hymn (Φῶς ίλαρόν) seems to draw from this tradition, and it may also have drawn from vesper prayers, such as those found in The Statutes of the Apostles (3rd century) and The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (ca. 380):
Concerning the bringing in of lamps at the supper of the congregation. When the evening has come, the bishop being there, the deacon shall bring in a lamp, and standing in the midst of all the faithful, being about to give thanks, the bishop shall first give the salutation, thus saying: “The Lord (be) with you all.” And the people also shall say: “With thy spirit.” . . . And he prays thus, saying: “We give thee thanks, God, through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, because thou hast enlightened us by revealing the incorruptible light, we having therefore finished the length of a day and having come to the beginning of the night, and having been satiated with the light of the day which thou hast created for our satisfaction, and now since we have not been deficient of the light of the evening by thy grace, we sanctify thee and we glorify thee through thine only Son our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom to thee with him (be) glory and might and honour with the Holy Spirit now, etc.” And they shall all say: “Amen.”
We praise Thee, we sing hymns to Thee, we bless Thee for Thy great glory, O Lord our King, the Father of Christ the immaculate Lamb, who taketh away the sin of the world. Praise becomes Thee, hymns become Thee, glory becomes Thee, the God and Father, through the Son, in the most holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
When it is evening, thou, O bishop, shalt assemble the church; and after the repetition of the psalm at the lighting up of the lights, the deacon shall bid prayers for the catechumens, the energumens, the illuminated, and the penitents, as we have formerly said. . . . And let the bishop say: “O God of our fathers, and Lord of mercy, who didst form man of Thy wisdom a rational creature, and beloved of God more than the other beings upon this earth, and didst give him authority to rule over the creatures upon the earth, and didst ordain by Thy will rulers and priests — the former for the security of life, the latter for a regular worship — do Thou now also look down, O Lord Almighty, and cause Thy face to shine upon Thy people, who bow down the neck of their heart, and bless them by Christ, through whom Thou hast enlightened us with the light of knowledge, and hast revealed Thyself to us; with whom worthy adoration is due from every rational and holy nature to Thee, and to the Spirit, who is the Comforter, for ever. Amen.”
The earliest known reference to this specific lamplighting hymn, Φῶς ίλαρόν (“Phos hilaron”), can be found in De Spiritu Sancto (The Holy Spirit), by Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 329–379):
“We cannot say to who was the father of those expressions in the Thanksgiving at the Lighting of the Lamps; but it is an ancient formula which people repeat, and no one has ever yet been accused of impiety for saying, ‘We hymn the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit of God’” (xxix:73; as translated in Hymns Ancient and Modern: Historical Edition, 1909).
Basil’s reference to this hymn as an “ancient formula” is the primary reason why its date of origin is believed to be in the second century. The oldest known manuscript is a fragment kept in the British Library (Papyrus 2037 | Fig. 1) from the sixth or seventh century. Around that same time, the hymn was named as a regular element of vesper services at Sinai.
The complete hymn was first committed to print in De Romanæ Ecclesiæ (London, 1647 | Fig. 2), pp. 43-44, with a translation into Latin by James Ussher (1581-1656).
Tunes: Traditional. The tunes given below are traditional Greek tunes which have been used by the Greek Orthodox Church, printed in Rassegna Gregoriana, vol. 4 (Rome, 1905 | Fig. 3), pp. 400-401, as sung in Athos (melody 1) and Sicily (melody 2).
Translation 1. “Hail! gladdening light” by John Keble (1792-1866), printed in the British Magazine (1834) and Lyra Apostolica (1836 | Fig. 4), was the first hymnic adaptation to enter common use in English churches, mainly through its inclusion in the Appendix of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1868 | Fig. 5), with the tune HAIL GLADDENING LIGHT by Frederick Ouseley (1825-1889).
In subsequent editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875 | Fig. 6), the tune was replaced with SEBASTE by John Stainer (1840–1901).
Translation 2. “O gladsome light,” by poet laureate Robert Bridges (1844–1930), has also entered into common use. Bridges wrote his version for the Yattendon Hymnal (1899; 1920 ed. shown at Fig. 7). In his notes, he attributed the original Greek hymn to Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (560–638), but this clearly postdates Basil’s reference by more than two hundred years. Bridges’ text was set to a tune generally attributed to Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510–c. 1561), NUNC DIMITTIS (or LE CANTIQUE DE SIMÉON), written for the French paraphrase of the Song of Simeon, from Le premier Livre de Pseaulmes (Lyon, 1547). This particular four-part setting was written by Claude Goudimel (c. 1514–1572) in 1565 in Les Pseaumes mis en rime françoise. Bridges called Goudimel’s arrangement “a good example of his plain settings. . . . Having made part-settings of Bourgeois’ melodies, he was suspected of heresy, and was massacred in the bloodshed wide on S. Bartholomew’s Day, Aug. 24, 1572.”
Translation 3. A more recent version of the Φῶς ίλαρόν in current use is “O light, whose splendor thrills and gladdens” by Carl Daw, Jr., from A Year of Grace (Carol Stream, IL: 1990), text only, in three stanzas of four lines. In his notes in that collection (p. 120), Daw indicated that he wrote the text specifically to fit the tune ST. CLEMENT. He also offered guidance on possible textual alterations. The hymn appeared again in his collection To Sing God’s Praise (1992 | Fig. 8), with two tune settings: (1) ST. CLEMENT by Clement Scholefield (1839–1904), and (2) PHOS HILARON by David Ashley White.
ST. CLEMENT first appeared in Arthur Sullivan’s Church Hymns with Tunes (1874 | Fig. 9), where it was set to the evening hymn “The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,” by John Ellerton (1826–1893). Some scholars believe Sullivan significantly altered, edited, and/or shaped this tune, because it is more characteristic of his musical style than Scholefield’s. See the bibliography below for more information.
Additional Translations. Another modern translation in common use is “O radiant light, O sun divine” by William G. Storey, first published in Morning Praise and Evensong (Notre Dame, IN, 1973). Storey’s version moves the trinitarian doxology to the end of the hymn.
See also the modern setting in use at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery (Florence, Arizona), “O joyous light,” adapted by John Sakellarides, available from the Divine Music Project (website | PDF).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
19 July 2018
G.W. Butterworth, The Exhortation to the Greeks (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1919), in parallel Greek and English, chapter 11, 114:1, pp. 242-243: PDF
The Statutes of the Apostles, ed. G. Horner (London: Williams & Norgate, 1904), statute 37, pp. 159-160: PDF
The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7 (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1886), Bk. VII:48, p. 478: PDF
The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7 (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1886), Bk. VIII:35-37, p. 496: PDF).
For an analysis of the British Library fragment, see Antonia Tripolitis, “Φῶς ίλαρόν: Ancient Hymn and Modern Enigma,” Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 24 (1970), pp. 189-196.
For accounts of the vesper services at Sinai, in English, see Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), pp. 173-174; N.D. Uspensky, Evening Worship in the Orthodox Church, trans. and ed. Paul Lazor (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), pp. 58-61, 67; Gregory W. Woolfenden, Daily Liturgical Prayer: Origins and Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 53-54; in Greek, see W. Christ and M. Paranikas, eds., Anthologia Graeca Carminum Christianorum (Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B.G. Teubneri, 1871), xxx-xxxi.
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John Julian, “Φῶς ίλαρόν,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 894: Google Books
“Hail! gladdening light,” Hymns Ancient & Modern Historical Edition (London, 1909).
M. Eleanor Irwin, “Phos hilaron: the metamorphosis of a Greek Christian hymn,” The Hymn vol. 40, no. 2 (April 1989), pp. 7-12: HathiTrust
Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, 2nd rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 37.
Mervyn Horder, “A note on ST. CLEMENT,” Bulletin, Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1994), pp. 67-68.
Paul Westermeyer, “Clement Cotterill Scholefield,” Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA, 2005), pp. 259-260.
Ian Bradley, “Sullivan’s possible involvement in ST CLEMENT,” Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers: The Sacred Music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (London: SCM Press, 2013), pp. 201-204.
Carl P. Daw, Jr. Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), nos. 671-672, pp. 638-640.
Annette Jung, “Phos hilaron,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
The Divine Music Project, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Vespers:
“Hail! gladdening light” (Keble) at Hymnary.org:
“O gladsome light” (Bridges) at Hymnary.org:
“O light whose splendor thrills” (Daw) at Hymnary.org:
“O radiant light, O sun divine” (Storey) at Hymnary.org: