The Phos Hilaron: Ancient Hymn

Singing songs and hymns in worship has been a part of the Christian Church from the very beginning. Evidence of this fact can be seen in the Phos Hilaron. The Phos Hilaron (literally ‘hilarious light’) is one of the earliest surviving hymns of the Ancient Christian Church and it is still used in gatherings to this very day.

St. Athenogenes (died in 305) is the one attributed to writing the Phos Hilaron. St. Athenogenes was a Bishop and a martyr of the Christian Church. He died during the reign of Emperor Diocletian by being burned at the stake along with other saints of the Church. It is said that Athenogenes sang the Phos Hilaron with great joy as he was being consumed by the flames of persecution and that the arm of the executioner was paralyzed until Athenogenes was done singing and composing the Phos Hilaron.

St. Basil, around 365 AD, described the Phos Hilaron as a hymn that was used centuries before him. At that time the Christians were forced to worship in the catacombs of Jerusalem because of the strong persecution that was going on at the time. A candle was kept burning in what was believed to be the tomb of Christ and was a symbol of the light of Christ that lives on. The worshipers would gather and sing the Phos Hilaron as the candle was brought out of the tomb to symbolize their Risen Lord.

The Phos Hilaron has continued to this day in the worship services of the Greek Orthodox Church. It did not become well known in the west until around 1700. It is now included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. (See below for the Oxford Book of Common Prayer text.) The hymn has since been translated a few other times into English from different perspectives. See below for the text translated by Robert Bridges in 1899.

Oxford Book of Common Prayer

O Gracious Light

pure brightness of the everlasting Father in heaven.

O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,

and our eyes behold the vesper light,

we sing praises, O God:

Father Son and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times

to be praised by happy voices,

O Son of God, O Giver of life,

and to be glorified through all the worlds.

Text by Robert Bridges, 1899

O gladsome Light, O Grace

Of God the Father’s Face

The eternal splendor wearing;

Celestial, holy, blest,

Our Savior Jesus Christ,

Joyful in Thine appearing

Now, ere day fadeth quite,

We see the evening light,

Our wonted hymn outpouring,

Father of might unknown,

The, His incarnate Son,

And Holy Ghost adoring

To Thee of right belongs

All praise of holy songs,

O Son of God, Life-giver;

Thee, therefore, O Most High,

The world doth glorify

And shall exalt forever.

Resources:

Hymnology: Phos Hilaron, Smith Creek Music

Phos Hilaron, OrthodoxWiki

Phos Hilaron: Origins, Serving History