“The People that in Darkness Sat” This hymn text written by John Morison (1749-1798) is a paraphrase of today’s Old Testament lesson in which Isaiah prophecies that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.” These verses does Morison quote nearly verbatim in the first stanza, but he continues with that unique Christmas-language in stanza two, “To hail Thee, Sun of Righteousness, the gathering nations come; they joy as when the reapers bear their harvest treasures home.” Of course, this Sun of Righteousness is a metaphor for Christ who, during this season of Epiphany, is gradually being revealed to the world as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Likewise from Isaiah 9 do the third and fourth stanzas derive: “To us a Child of hope is born, to us a Son is given, and on His shoulder ever rests all power in earth and heaven. His name shall be the Prince of Peace, the Everlasting Lord, the Wonderful, the Counselor, the God by all adored.” In this stanza Morison begins to place Isaiah’s prophecies in a specific New Testament context, calling this Sun of Righteousness a “child.” Not until the final stanza does he specifically reveal Christ, but when he does it is as a prayer: “Lord Jesus, reign in us, we pray, and make us Thine alone, who with the Father ever art and Holy Spirit one.” Thus, the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the New Covenant heralded by the Christ Child.
When reading over this text, the writer of music notes thought of something, possibly not profound, but in a way he had not previously pondered, dealing in this case with the Magi from the east who are substantially more than terra cotta figurines adorning one’s domestic manger scene. To quote from an earlier edition of music notes dedicated to the Wise Men:
Western tradition since the seventh century assigns the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar to the Wise Men. Much of the legend surrounding the wise men derives from The Travels of Marco Polo who, in the Renaissance, traveled the world and recorded traditions, lore, and history of a number of cultures, some of which may reveal some truth about these wise men. The wise men were not kings—their depiction as kings first occurs in the artwork of medieval Europe. The Magi were a priestly Persian caste, probably Medes and Zoroastrianists. (A religion which, while still surviving some places, was mostly replaced by Islam in the seventh century.) According to historical legend, at least one wise man became a Christian, and they all ended up (in one of those Christopher Columbus-like post-mortem journeys) supposedly buried in Kőln, Germany, where supposedly their bones lie to this day.
These Magi were likely astronomers and astrologers, studying the night sky without the aid of a telescope but without the hindrance of ambient lighting. If one ever stares into the sky on a clear night, one is astounded by the complexity of the patterns of the innumerable stars. Yet, these wise men knew this solar “map” so well that they could tell when the Star of Bethlehem made its appearance (and contrary to Christmas card convention, that star could not have been too noticeable or Herod and all Jerusalem would have been led to the young Jesus.) They had studied the constellations for years until their dark sky was lightened by the Star of Bethlehem; even their pagan prophecies, beclouded by superstition as they certainly were, must have suggested that such a star would serve as a portent for a very important happening. The wise men must have believed this or they would not have engaged in such a risky venture as to travel from Persia to Bethlehem. The biblical narrative does not tell us exactly what the wise men did when they met the young Jesus other than they “bowed down and worshipped Him” and “presented Him with gifts.” Their entire visit, minus their encounter with Herod beforehand, encompasses only four verses in Matthew 2. One is struck not only by the length and danger of their journey to Bethlehem, but also by the years of preparation and professional study which must have been required in order for them to obtain the wisdom to know that there was a star out of place! Yet, even by the brief synopsis found in Matthew, we know they considered the trip a success as, “they were overjoyed.” (Matt. 2: 10) What an immense amount of travail just to visit a child whose divine nature was probably not completely apparent even to them!
Such is our journey through the life of Christ we call the liturgical year. We become enamored with the details of December—parties, social events, cards, gifts, family—that it is sometimes too easy to miss the entire point. Church musicians, for example, have to learn music, mark up their scores, attend rehearsals, endure grumpy directors and late hours in December only to find the Christmas season really only lasts a few days—two weeks at the most. Sometimes it seems rather futile as it must have seemed to the wise men. Another night of studying the stars? Another evening of endless rehearsals? Yet, the wise men experienced joy when they encountered the Christ child just as we moderns likewise experience joy when we encounter Christ in Word and Sacrament every Sunday. For us church musicians, sometimes that work pays off for ourselves and others, and we experience that joy which is informed by a knowledge of who that Christ child is as we sing and play music of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
Our challenge, perhaps, is to take that joy with us throughout the year just as the wise men must have taken their joy with them throughout their lives. We are now in January, but we are still in Epiphany and not too far from Christmas. The wise men exemplify the Gentiles who, in the words of today’s hymn, represent “the gathering nations come; they joy as when the reapers bear their harvest treasures home.” We no longer live in the hopeful expectation of the Old Covenant, for Christ has come, accomplished His work, and we live in the New Covenant in which the Holy Spirit breathes life into His Church. Yet we do life in eschatological anticipation for Christ’s second coming when, in the words of the fifth stanza:
His righteous government and power shall over all extend; on judgment and on justice based, His reign shall have no end. His reign shall have no end.