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O Christ Our True and Only Light


Music Notes

5 July, 2015


“O Christ, Our True and Only Light.” These days, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East has caught our attention. The rampant destruction of ancient holy sites and the forced and threatened conversions of Christians to Islam should be of concern to all Christians. Persecution for the sake of the Gospel is nothing new to the Church, and one can even argue that its most fruitful eras were those during which Christians experienced the harshest of persecution. The author of this hymn text, Johann Heermann (1585-1647), was no stranger to hardship, having lived much of his adult life under the shadow of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a conflict that brought destruction to much of Europe and particularly to Silesia, that narrow region nestled amidst Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, and which for centuries was bandied about between whatever principality was in power at the moment. Heermann was a Lutheran pastor, having accepted his first pastorate in 1611. However, he would soon be troubled with health problems. From improper overuse his eyes were weak, and an affliction of the throat after 1623 forced him to cease public preaching. Several times Heermann lost all his possessions to the war, his first wife died in 1617, and several times he was forced to evacuate his home.[1] 

Heermann bears a reputation, along with Paul Gerhardt, as being one of the hymn writers who gradually moved the Lutheran chorale from the objective character of the Reformation chorale to a chorale of a more personal and introspective nature. Hymns set exclusively in first person—something generally eschewed by the Reformation writers—would become commonplace. In this hymn, however, Heermann observes much restrain as he sets his prayer to words, asking, “O Christ, our true and only light, enlighten those who sit in night; let those afar now hear Your voice and in Your fold with us rejoice.” The scripture references in LSB cite Isaiah 60: 1-3, that traditional Advent text, “‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’” This idea of light, suggested by Christ Himself in John 8 when he proclaims “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” is a thread which weaves through this text. The contrast between the peaceful years of his early life and the war-ravaged years of his adulthood must have ingrained themselves into Heermann’s being. Having witnessed the horrors of war, it would have been difficult for him to hold a high view of human nature, so he continues to pray:


Fill with the radiance of Your grace the souls now lost in error’s maze; enlighten those whose inmost minds some dark delusion haunts and blinds.

O gently call those gone astray that they may find the saving way! Let ev’ry conscience sore oppressed in You find peace and heavenly rest.

Shine on the darkened and the cold; recall the wand’rers to Your fold. Unite those who walk apart; confirm the weak and doubting heart,

That they with us may evermore such grace with wond’ring thanks adore and endless praise to You be giv’n by all Your Church in earth and heaven.


            This hymn was first published in Devoti Musica Cordis (“Music of a Devout Heart”) in 1630 in the section entitled “In the time of the persecution and distress of pious Christians.”[3] Hymnals of this time often seemed to try to outdo each other in terms of flowery titles, but do reveal a renewed interest on “heart-felt” faith vs. “mere” head knowledge. (Of course, this is oversimplifying an idea which was already a caricature of orthodox hymnody, but that is an exploration for another time.) In this text Heermann clearly delineates the fact that there is right and wrong/good and evil in the world. This bears pointing out especially in our time when such absolutes are often rationalized away in favour of the meaninglessly relative. It is a bit discomforting these days to think of people as having “gone astray,” being “lost in error’s maze,” suffering from minds in which “some dark delusion haunts and blinds.” We certainly don’t like to call people “darkened and cold,” nor refer to them as “wanderers.” (Although that reminds me of a parable or two of Christ’s.) These uncomfortable words can be applied to our friends, family, neighbours, and to ourselves, and are in a sense confessional,although in this hymn-prayer we pray more for the light of God’s word to lighten our heart’s darkness rather than any sins in particular. In essence, this hymn assumes a fairly low epistemology—ie., what we can know is limited to what God chooses to reveal to us.

            In all of Heermann’s biographies that I have consulted (and unfortunately my Koch volume III, which contains Heermann's, is missing), only Winkworth relates this story of Heermann and his son: In 1638, his eldest son had become taken with Roman Catholic dogma and was under the influence of the Jesuits. After much prayer and (I’d imagine) dogmatic rhetorical intervention, his son was convinced to remain in the Lutheran Church, only to die shortly thereafter in 1643. (A death which Winkworth suggests may have been due to poisoning by the Jesuits—a rather fantastic tale that will need some historical support in order for me to believe its veracity.) This hymn was published a good eight years before this event, but it is not hard to believe that Heermann would have used its words—his own words—when praying for his son.

Evil things happen to all parties during wartime, and here is to be lamented that any non-belligerents were involved. To quote Lazarus Spengler in his chorale, “All mankind fell in Adam’s fall; one common sin infects us all.” Catholic and Protestant alike have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3: 23) That evil exists and is manifest through persecution should only be of surprise to those whose worldview suggests that humanity is inherently good. For the rest of us, we can take refuge in the Gospel also in the words of Spengler:

As by one man all mankind fell and, born to sin, was doomed to hell,

So by one Man, who took our place, we all were justified by grace.         


[1] See John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), p 504, for the basic biographical information that has provided the basis for most of the hymnal companion biographies of Heermann. Note that Julian relies heavily on Koch’sGeschichte des Kirchenlieds.

[2] Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany. (New York: MacMillan, 1869), p. 195-196. One should note that Winworth’s sources, according to her preface, are Wackernagel’s Das Deutsche Kirchenlied and the aforementioned Koch.

[3] Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship. Marilyn Stulken, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 423. To see this hymnal in its entirety in digital form, visit

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This is the Day the Lord Has Made


“This is the Day the Lord Has Made” Inspired by Psalm 118: 24, this hymn is only loosely based on the text, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The text originated in the Englishman Isaac Watts’ (1674-1748) Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), where it forms the fourth section of a metrification of Psalm 118 and is entitled, “Hosanna; the Lord’s Day; or Christ’s Resurrection and our Salvation.”[1] Being a bibliophile, I have a comprehensive collection of Watts’ writings which evidences the mind of a comprehensive man. Of course, his several hundred hymns are collected in the above volume as well as his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1709), Horae Lyricae (1706), Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children (1715) and Sermons with Hymns (1723/27). But his comprehensive ponderings were not limited to hymnody. One of my favourite books is The Improvement of the Mind (1741), whose spine enticingly reads “Watts on the Mind,” and is a textbook devoted to clear thinking and basic logical rudiments, but is not to be confused with his textbook on logic which, as John Julian claims, was used as a textbook in the UK well into the nineteenth century.[2] He also wrote a fascinating treatise on death and the end times which, since my copy was published in the mid-nineteenth century, I can only presume underwent many publication runs. Rev. James Caldwell, during the Battle of Springfield in 1781, upon discovering the militiamen were running out of wadding for their muskets, supposedly entered a nearby church which had Watts hymnals in the pews, grabbed a bunch, pulling out paper to use as wadding whilst exclaiming, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”[3] This makes an entertaining story (particularly for people who have fired a musket, which is one of the few firearm-related activities in which I have engaged, and that but once) yet is only hymnologically significant because it speaks to the popularity and ubiquity of Watts’ hymnals spanning two continents.

            Let us return to the hymn in question. He paraphrases very loosely Psalm 118: 24 in the first stanza: “This is the day the Lord has made: He calls the hours His own. Let heav’n rejoice, let earth be glad and praise surround the throne.” Watts’ instructions for usage are followed by LSB, which has located this hymn in the “Beginning of Service” section, and is hence generally appropriate for most any Sunday. If the first stanza exemplifies the “Psalms of David” character of this hymnal, certain the second stanza exemplifies the “Imitated in the Language of the New Testament” character: “Today He rose and left the dead, and Satan’s empire fell; Today the saints His triumphs spread and all His wonders tell.” This, indeed, is quite a paraphrase! The Christological addition to this “paraphrase” seems routine, mundane, and properly expected now, but this was not typical of English-speaking hymn-singing of the time. The Dissenters/Calvinists primarily utilized metrical psalms for their singing—a practice going back to the great Genevan Psalter of 1539 (and subsequent editions.) The first book published in North America was the Puritans’ Bay Psalm Book (1640), which was only one of many psalters used by the non-Anglicans. Anglican liturgy was not much more progressive when it came to hymn singing. From 1549, hymn singing had been limited to the psalm paraphrases found in the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter, whose often-comedic paraphrases were replaced in 1696 by the more elegant Tate and Brady psalter, which was often published together with the Book of Common Prayer. The Tate and Brady did contain some New Testament canticles and the Te Deum, but accounts of the dour worship practices of this time no doubt bear much basis in reality. For Watts to add a New Testament theme to his hymns, which he would call “Hymns of Human Composure,” ironically and arguably made for a Christocentricity which simply wasn’t possible with psalm paraphrases.

            Whereas the second stanza proclaims the momentous events of that first Easter Sunday, Watts now takes us back a week to Palm Sunday which he uses as a framework for the remaining stanzas: “Hosanna to the anointed King, to David’s holy Son! Help us, O Lord; descend and bring Salvation from Your throne.” Watts, like many divines of earlier centuries, was always concerned to connect Old Testament prophecies with their fulfilment in the New Testament, and here Watts encourages a personal reaction to this prophetic fact. We pray, “Help us, O Lord,” recalling the words of the Litany. Watts continues, “Blessed is He who comes to us with messages of grace; He, in the Lord’s name, comes to us to save our fallen race.” In the original text, Watts writes, “Blessed is the Lord who comes. . .” Perhaps the change was made better to reflect most modern (non-inclusive language) versions of the Sanctus/Benedictus. When singing the hymn from the page, it is clear that “He” refers to Lord due to its capitalization. But in an age in which many hymns were memorized and sung “by heart,” simply singing “he” would introduce an element of confusion which is simply addressed by the appellation “Lord.” Watts introduces echoes of Pentecost in the final stanza, “Hosanna in the highest strains the Church on earth can raise. The highest heav’ns, in which He reigns, shall give Him nobler praise.” It is not unusual now for a hymn to end with a doxology or simply with a stanza of praise, as this is. But considering the psalm-singing tradition in which the hymn ended wherever the psalm happened to end, this final stanza must have seemed exuberant!

            There is much more to say about Isaac Watts and, most importantly, his hymnic legacy to the modern Church. What Christmastide would be complete without “Joy to the World,” a hymn recognized by Christian and secular alike? I have seen versions on Youtube of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” performed by cathedral choir and megachurch praise band alike. Recently, I was in St Paul, MN, touring the James Hill house across the street from the basilica. This great nineteenth-century mansion had an original George Hutchins two-manual organ in the music room. I was surprised when the tour guide asked if anyone in the group played the organ, to which I (uncharacteristically enthusiastically) responded “Yes.” She asked me to play, and I immediately launched into “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90. Although the organ probably had not been tuned since 1870, the action was unreliable and uneven, and one could sense the dust that was precluding the pipes from speaking properly, it was a joy to hear people in the group singing or humming along quietly as I played. In a day of increased and unrelenting secularization, Watts has provided us something that endures in our culture.



[1] Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. (London: The Apollo Press, 1802), 145.

[2] “Isaac Watts” in John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology. (New York: Scribner, 1892), 1236.

[3] Norman F Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell, Patriot, 1734-1781. (West Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Historical Association, 1976),  54

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