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O Christ Our True and Only Light

LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH

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  http://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht/?PPN=PPN688378110&PHYSID=PHYS_0009&USE=800

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