* This simple prayer offers a voice to individual worshippers who may feel crowded out by the endless chorus of ‘shepherds’ and ‘wise men’ who seem to monopolise Nativity celebrations.Jesus-light-of-heaven
Jesus light of heaven (midi)
This hymn offers a voice to those who want to celebrate the Epiphany of Christ but find received expressions of the festival a bit remote. “Earth has many a noble city: Bethlehem, thou dost all excel”, “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning, dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid”, “As with gladness, men of old Did the guiding star behold”: these are all fine hymns, and well-loved; but today it may be that some people who sing along gladly are conscious of singing in other people’s voices rather than their own.
In the received understanding of the Epiphany Christ is presented to the world clothed in, for example, the rich imagery of Isaiah 60.1-6. (T)hick darkness shall cover the peoples: but the Lord shall arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light…the wealth of nations shall come to you…they shall bring gold and frankincense… This makes a problem, because originally these verses are likely to have referred to Israel as God’s covenant community rather than to a sole Messiah. The problem is not an insurmountable barrier to Christian belief, but it means that the believer is asked in effect to receive Jesus as Lord from a considerable distance, as though from a long way back in a vast crowd from many times and cultures. In this situation it may be difficult for a believer to become personally engaged with Christ.
So this hymn adopts a direct mode of address, speaking to Jesus as though in one-to-one conversation. It’s a bit like queue-ing to visit Santa Claus’ grotto where, having at last been admitted to the kindly and all-providing presence, one is encouraged to pour out one’s heart: “What do you want for Christmas?” This hymn therefore is in the form of a prayer, child-like in its immediacy and trusting.
At the same time, this talking to Jesus recognises that more is being shown to the world than one who receives kings coming to the brightness of your dawn and wise men from the east. “(E)arth’s poor and wretched” are there too, valuing Jesus no less than the rich. Nor is Jesus is worshipped solely as imaged in paintings of gold-gilt nativity or as child with devoted mother. Already the scandal of crucifixion is foreshadowed, and the worshipper anticipates singing one of the greatest of English hymns: ‘We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross’ (by Thomas Kelly 1769-1855).
In this present hymn, we try very hard to be subjective; that is, to talk to Jesus as though there were only me and him in all the world. But we don’t succeed, for the simple reason that we cannot. We know that we have billions of sisters and brothers: our conversation is part of a hugely larger conversation. Christ is made known to me personally in the setting of the Epiphany to all. We acknowledge an objective mystery, but we are involved in it reflexively, our heart’s understanding enlarged through taking part.
The last stanza represents a mature reflection of the hymn-singer on the Church’s understanding of Christ. Here is the fullness of God at home within creation, although creation is not yet fully at home within God. The concluding prayer submits that God’s compassionate word alone can bring us to into communion with one another. Without further elaboration, we ask for just that.