Posted by: rcottrill | August 11, 2014

Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning

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Words: Reginald Heber (b. Apr. 21, 1783; d. Apr. 3, 1826)
Music: Morning Star, by James Proctor Harding (b. May 19, 1850; d. Feb. 21, 1911)

Wordwise Hymns (Reginald Heber)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Heber’s text was first published in 1811. It seems he borrowed one of his children’s copy books from school to jot down the lines. The original poem is found on pages amid geometry problems! The lovely tune most frequently associated with it now was composed in 1892. As the dozens of hymnals in will show, the carol was set to a variety of tunes over the first eighty years. It was in The Church Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church, published in 1892, that Harding’s tune appears.

Reginald Heber’s carol has not been without its critics. There are those who object to the opening stanza in which the wise men are pictured as calling upon the star to guide them to the Christ-child. In Heber’s words they say, “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning! / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid.”

To some, this seemed too close to praying to the star, or even worshipping the star! However, most are willing to accept the image as a literary device, and not quibble about it. I can recall driving an old car up a steep hill, patting the dashboard and saying, “Come on, Betsy, you can make it!” Was I “praying” to the car? No, of course not. And Bishop Heber certainly intended no hint of idolatry. Ironically, he wrote concerning his hymns:

“No fulsome [excessive] or indecorous [tasteless] language has been knowingly adopted; no erotic addresses to Him whom no unclean lips can approach; no allegory, ill-understood and worse applied.”

Whether or not he completely achieved his aim with the present hymn, it remains a beautiful carol. It offers a touching portrayal of the manger scene, where lies the “Maker, and Monarch, and Saviour of all (CH-2), and “the great Mediator” (CH-5, cf. I Tim. 2:5), yet One born in such a lowly setting.

CH-1) Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us Thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

CH-2) Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies His head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore Him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all!

Christmas is a time of gift-giving. But when God the Father sent His Son, that was the greatest Gift of all. “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given” (Isa. 9:6). “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (II Cor. 9:15).

The Babe was born in poverty, but He received from those who came to Him both gifts and ardent adoration. Matthew records how some wise men travelled from an eastern land to pay homage to the newborn King. “We have seen His star in the East,” they said, “and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2). It is this event that is commemorated in the carol.

But it raises a question for which Heber’s carol offers an answer. What is a gift fitting for the One destined to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords? In a way, a material gift makes little sense. The Lord Jesus made all things (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16-17), and they all belong to Him in the first place (Ps. 24:1; Rom. 11:36). When we give our gifts to Him as the wise men did, we are giving Him something of His own (I Chron. 29:14).

Material gifts, however, do have a purpose. They are tokens that can testify to our heart’s praise and worship–as was the case with the wise men. Further, in our day, they are the means of supporting the ministry of the church and the proclamation of the gospel. These things being said, there is one gift we can offer to the Lord that is only ours to give, and that is our love and allegiance, our willing service (Rom. 12:1), and our faith-filled prayers.

CH-3) Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion,
Odours of Edom and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?

CH-4) Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would His favour secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

1) What do you think of the criticism that Heber’s hymn amounts to praying to a star?

2) Is this a carol that you include in your Christmas worship?

Wordwise Hymns (Reginald Heber)
The Cyber Hymnal


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