The Phos Hilaron, (literally, light of hilarity, or gladdening light) is probably the most ancient piece of non-scriptural hymnology or ecclesial poetry to have made its way into regular Christian liturgical praxis. It is quite simply a hymn of thanksgiving for light, itself, composed to accompany the daily ritual of the lighting of the lamps at sundown, and to render thanksgiving to God for His offering of the Light of Christ, the Light of the World, which has overcome the darkness of this world, and which continues to do so.
While musical accompaniment renders powerful embellishment of its text possible, the most compact translation of the original Greek is this:
heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ!
As we come to the setting of the sun and behold the evening light,
we praise you Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God!
It is fitting at all times that you be praised
with auspicious [undefiled] voices,
O Son of God, giver of life.
That is why the whole world glorifies you!
It is tempting for Christians to want to attribute the composition of this piece to Jewish tradition, seeing it as a re-write of the prayer said for the lighting of the Sabbath Light, but most liturgical scholars agree that the evidence for the daily nature of a Christian thanksgiving for the light points to a more likely Christianizing of a pagan Greek custom. It may also be tempting for some Christian scholars to want to credit Palestinian monastic tradition (esp. Sabas) for its composition, but clear evidence of its fourth century inclusion in cathedral evensong and vespers throughout the periphery of the Roman Empire, from Britain, Spain and Rome to Ethiopia, India and Armenia seems to indicate a much earlier grassroots distribution of the hymn. The Cappadocian siblings Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and their sister, St. Macrina testify in the late 370’s that the Phos Hilaron had been a part of their own heritage as long as they could remember, which would indicate that, in the churches of Asia Minor, at least, the hymn was used daily even before there was a clearly formed vespers in which to include it, that it would have been at least pre-Nicene, and probably pre-Edict of Toleration in origin. Hippolytus also hints at a Christianized lucernarium in connection with the agape feast of his community a hundred years earlier.
Regardless of its original derivation, however, the clear tie to the Light of Christ and to the early Christian baptismal spirituality of becoming illuminate is unmistakable. Irenaeus reminds us, “To see the light is to be in the light and participate in its clarity; likewise to see God is to be in Him and participate in His life-giving splendor; thus those who see God participate in His life” (Adv.haer.IV, 20:5).
In today’s world, we often take for granted that with the flick of a switch we can enjoy all different kinds of light whenever we want to, and our lifestyles no longer revolve around the natural rising and setting of the sun. In such a world it is easy to lose sight of just how significant it is that Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and that darkness is, in fact, something to be feared.
“In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5 NASB).
Sources for further study
- Robert Taft, Liturgy of the Hours in East and West and A Short History of the Byzantine Rite, both of which contain footnotes that are often more valuable than Taft’s own ever-incisive text
- A. G. Martimort, The Church at Prayer, Vol. IV, “The Liturgy and Time”
- Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church
Originally posted July 31, 2006.