The Epiphany Season
The total solar eclipse in the United States on Monday, August 21 will be quite an event. And it’s one that seemingly everyone is already talking about.
Why is this astronomical event such a big deal to us? I mean, we live in an age when we can carry around supercomputers in our pockets. (And these same supercomputers can tell us exactly how much of the eclipse we’ll be experiencing based on our precise location).
Are we really going to look up from our smartphones and gaze heavenward on Monday?
Well, if and when we do, we’ll be joining in one of those great human acts: pondering the mystery and majesty of the natural world.
For centuries, Christians have had a tendency to look up to these celestial bodies in their song. They are part of our world and part of God’s creation. Their movement orders our days and our lives and therefore our worship of almighty God. So, let's take a look at some of the hymns found in the Hymnal 1982.
It’s interesting to look closely at the processional cross used at St. Peter’s, St. Louis, and find both the sun and the moon peering out at you in the midst of the four Evangelists.
And why shouldn't they be on the cross of Christ? The date of Easter, the central mystery of the Christian faith, is determined by both the sun and the moon. It is the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (see page 880 of the Book of Common Prayer).
St. Patrick (372-466) invokes these two bodies in his glorious hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity
I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even,
Hymn 370 (all hymn numbers in this essay refer to the Hymnal 1982), translated by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)
A few centuries later, an anonymous office hymn for Vespers, “Caeli Deus sanctissimae” has the natural order of day and night as one of its themes. It’s second and third stanzas receive a glorious free translation from Anne LeCroy in the Hymnal 1982.
Quarto die qui flammeam solis rotam consituens, lunae ministras orini vagos recursus siderum, Ut noctibus vel lumini diremptionis terminum, primordiis et mensium signum dares notissimum:
for you the dazzling star shines forth which in its gleaming path declares the wonders of your glorious power, And beckons us to worship you. The day departs, the evening stars serenely light the darkening sky; the moon with cool reflected glow will bring the silences of night.
Hymn 31 and 32. (I find the hymn tune Dunedin at Hymn 31 particularly irresistible with these words.)
The sun and the moon provided great inspiration to another beloved Christian figure and hymn writer St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voices, let us sing: Alleluia! Alleluia! Bright burning sun with golden beams, pale silver moon that gently gleams,
Hymn 400, tr. William H. Draper (1855-1933), alt.
Episcopalians get to enjoy not one, but two translations of St. Francis’s marvelous text. A less commonly sung version by Howard Chandler Robbins (1876-1952) is found at Hymns 406 and 407. I have a great fondness for the hymn texts of Robbins, who was a Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
My Lord be praised by brother sun who through the skies his course doth run, and shines in brilliant splendor: with brightness he doth fill the day, and signifies thy boundless sway. My Lord be praised by sister moon and all the stars, that with her soon will point the glittering heavens. Let wind and air and cloud and calm and weathers all, repeat the psalm.
There’s so much to admire in this language! “Signifies” – who knew that could be such a musical word? And in the moon stanza: the use of the verb “point”. The final sentence contains a chain of natural elements culminating in the peculiar “weathers”. There is much to savor here.
And the Calvin Hampton hymn tune “Lukkason” at Hymn 407 has much to recommend it.
John Mitlon (1608-1674) dresses up these spheres with some nifty descriptions in an often overlooked paraphrase of Psalm 136.
He the golden-tressèd sun caused all day his course to run: The hornèd moon to shine by night, mid her spangled sisters bright:
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) has a particularly florid paraphrase of Psalm 19:1-6
The unwearied sun from day to day does his Creator’s power display;
And in the second stanza he begins with the moon:
Soon as the evening shades prevail, the moon takes up the wondrous tale, and nightly to the listening earth repeats the story of her birth:… and it concludes gloriously with stars and planets.
whilst all the stars that round her burn, and all the planets in their turn, confirm the tidings, as they roll and spread the truth from pole to pole.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the “Father of English hymnody,” included the sun and the moon in several of his hymns.
I sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day; the moon shines full at his command, and all the stars obey.
Growing up in the Presbyterian church, it seemed as though we sang “Jesus shall reign” every other week!
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth his successive journeys run; His kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) is the author of that beloved Anglican hymn text “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven,” with that achingly glorious concluding stanza
Angels, help us to adore him; ye behold him face to face; sun and moon, bow down before him, dwellers all in time and space”
The familiar hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus" begins with earthly comparisons (Jesus, of course, outshines them all), and then reaches heavenward to drive it's point home.
Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight, and all the twinkling, starry host: Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer, than all the angels heaven can boast.
Hymn 383, German composite; tr. pub. New York, 1850, alt.
Folliott Sandford Pierpoint (1835-1917), wrote an enduring hymn of thanksgiving for creation, “For the beauty of the earth” when he was twenty-nine years old.
For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night, hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light,
Some marvelous twentieth-century texts have looked heavenward as well. In the era of space exploration, some of these texts take on a more “scientific” feel.
One of my very favorite hymns, which we don’t sing often enough is "Creating God, your fingers trace". The phrase “farthest space” could only appear in the age of space exploration when congregations could really conceive of what that might mean.
Creating God, your fingers trace the bold designs of farthest space; Let sun and moon and stars and light and what lies hidden praise your might.
Hymns 394 and 395, Jeffrey Rowthorn (b. 1934)
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