We’re still in the liturgical season of Epiphany, and here’s another traditional Epiphany hymn. The text of the hymn was composed by Reginald Heber around 1811. Heber was a gifted linguist and eventually the second Anglican Bishop of Calcutta. He died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in 1826.
As an Epiphany hymn, it concentrates on the revealed divinity of Jesus and the application of this reality to our lives.
Brightest and best of the stars of the morning / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thy aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning, / Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
The first verse makes much use of words dealing with light (Brightest, stars, morning, dawn, Star, horizon) because light is a prevalent theme in Epiphany (taking after John 1:1-5, no doubt). Jesus is light incarnate – not in a vague way but as the light which dispels the darkness of sin and death and Satan. This is our very real need – we cannot dispel the darkness ourselves because we are part of it. The star in Matthew 2 is the means by which the magi are drawn to Jesus to give him praise and honor, and we likewise seek to be drawn to this baby who is more than a baby, more than illuminated by a star, but the source and word by which that very star of revelation came into existence.
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 Savior of all.
The second verse poetically describes the two natures of Jesus – true man and yet true God. According to his humanity He is here spoken of in humble and very physical terms that emphasize his humanity and participation fully in the creation He speaks into being. He is affected by temperature and climate (cold, dew) and He is first found in the lowly condition of a stable surrounded by ‘dumb’ beasts. Yet He is divine, and so adored by angels for who He also is – the Maker and Monarch and Savior of all.
Shall we not yield him, in costly devotion / Fragrance of Edom and off’rings divine,
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean / Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?
How should we worship the Incarnate Son of God? Certainly there is no gift too valuable for him. Edom is an interesting reference here. Edom is the alternate name of Esau, Jacob’s older brother and a source of constant difficult for God’s people. Judgment is decreed frequently against Edom in the prophets, and Isaiah 34:9 talks about the land being reduced to nothing – streams of tar and soil of sulfur. Yet even from such odorous things a pleasing fragrance might be obtained, perhaps specifically as an offering to the Son of God. All of creation is the Lord’s, and those aspects we value most highly because of their difficulty to obtain are suitable offerings to the Incarnate Son of God.
Vainly we offer each amble oblation / Vainly with gifts would his favor secure
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration / Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Scripture passages such as Psalm 51:17 or Mark 12:33 no doubt inform this stanza. We bring sacrifices to God the Son because it is right to do so, because He is deserving of them – not because they are of use or value to him, or in order to sway his power in our favor. The gifts of the magi are beautiful but ultimately useless to the magi without corresponding faith in the baby as the divine Son of God who saves us from our sins. Such faith sees in the Christ child the proper object of worship and adoration, correctly (though imperfectly) seeing our own poor plight in darkness (stanza 1).
Brightest and best of the stars of the morning / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning, / Guide where our infant Redeemer lay.
The song ends as it begins, with the request that as the magi were guided by the star, our faith and hope in Christ might be guided in faith by the Word of God in Scripture, the Word that leads us to the cradle, the cross, the empty tomb, into a posture of waiting and anticipation for our Lord’s return.