Hymn of the Day - Advent to Epiphany

Jan 06 Brightest and best – Michael Garland

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning
Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
Public Domain

Tune: EPIPHANY HYMN, Joseph Francis Thrupp (1827-67)

Michael Garland

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
   dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
   guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
   low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
angels adore him in slumber reclining,
   Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all.

Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
   odours of Edom, and offerings divine,
gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean,
   myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?

Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
   vainly with gifts would his favour secure:
richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
   dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
   dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
   guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Michael Garland

Our ‘Hymn of the Day’ series ends today on a joyful note as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Those of us who are accustomed to following the Christian year in our hymnbooks will know that some of our finest hymns are sung throughout the Epiphany season. Amongst the favourites, such as Hail to the Lord’s anointed,  As with gladness men of old, and O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,[1] is my hymn of choice today, Brightest and best of the sons of the morning. Its author, Reginald Heber, enjoyed a brilliant academic career at Brasenose College, Oxford, winning a prize for poetry whilst he was there. Ordained in 1807, he served as Rector of Hodnet in Shropshire, where he described his role as ‘a half-way station between a parson and a squire.’[2]  His support for the newly formed British and Foreign Bible Society and of overseas missionary work, led to him being appointed as Bishop of Calcutta in 1823. Sadly, his ministry was cut short when he died in 1826, most probably from shock after taking a cold bath in the intense heat of the day.

Heber was an early champion of writing hymns for the Sundays of the Christian year, based on the scripture readings of the day as given in the Book of Common Prayer. In 1827, the year following his death, these hymns were published and drawn upon by later hymnbook editors. For some time, Brightest and best was overlooked following concerns from ‘dunderheaded critics’,[3] that it encouraged the worshipping of a star. Happily, the hymn was included in the 1916 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern and it has remained a staple of the Epiphany season ever since.

In the first verse of the hymn, we are invited to go in heart and mind to Bethlehem, to offer worship and praise to our Redeemer. The opening lines are addressed to the star but could equally well apply to Jesus, who lightens our darkness by his coming into the world. Heber’s poetic imagery is seen in all its brilliance in the second verse, as the stable scene reveals the new-born child as Maker, Monarch and Saviour. The gifts of the Wise Men are suggested in the third verse, and, as we move through the hymn, we find ourselves questioning what we may have to bring and to offer to the Christ-child. In another Christmas carol, Christina Rossetti asks the question more directly: ‘What can I give him, poor as I am?’ The answer lies in the giving of love. Heber is also eager to emphasise this in that what matters most to God are the gifts and offerings of adoration and prayer.

What tune may we borrow to sing Heber’s beautifully crafted verses? We are, quite simply, spoiled for choice. One wonders whether any other hymn has attracted so many musical suitors. Of the twenty-six different tunes associated with this hymn which I counted in a quick search, it is EPIPHANY,[4] sometimes referred to as EPIPHANY HYMN, which tops the list. This is the work of another Anglican clergyman, Joseph Francis Thrupp (1827-1867), sometime Vicar of Barrington, Cambridge, and a biblical scholar of distinction. Written for these words and published in 1863 in Psalms and Hymns for Public Worship, it suffered a brief exile in the Appendix of The English Hymnal 1906, famously referred to Vaughan Williams as ‘the Chamber of Horrors’. Thrupp’s tune is a gentle partner for Heber’s reflective text, and both words and tune bring much colour and depth of meaning to this mid-winter season, in which God’s loving purposes for us become more fully revealed.

O God, who by the leading of a star
brought the Wise Men to Bethlehem,
to offer their gifts and their worship to the Christ-child;
help us to offer the worship of our hearts
and the service of our lives
as we journey forth in this New Year;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

[1] Hail to the Lord’s anointed, James Montgomery (1771-1854); As with gladness men of old, William Chatterton Dix (1837-98) and O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, J.S.B. Monsell (1811-75).

[2]  Heber, R and Heber, A.S., The Life of Reginald Heber Vol.1. (London: J. Murray, 1830).

[3]  Percy Dearmer, Songs of Praise Discussed, (Oxford: OUP, 1933) p. 59.

[4] Not to be confused with a tune of the same name by E.J.Hopkins.

Brightest and best are the sons of the morning. Tune EPIPHANY

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