Joyous Light of Glory (Phos Hilaron)

Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Date: Advent III + 12/14/14

Today, for the second Sunday in a row, we hear about John the Baptist. But as soon as St. John mentions him at the beginning of his Gospel the Baptist immediately deflects all attention from himself onto the coming Savior. John was sent from God his sole purpose to be a witness. A witness testifies on behalf of someone or something else than self. Three times the Evangelist uses the word “witness.” One thing we take away from this today, therefore, is that this is also the task of the Church and of every Christian, to bear witness.

The Greek word for “witness” is “martyr.” We normally think of a martyr as someone who has died for the faith in Christ. And that is right. Therefore if the Church and if you are to be a witness we are called to die in some way. The three little minor festivals that follow Christmas define a witness or martyr in three ways. There are martyrs in will and in deed, some in will but not in deed, and some not in will but in deed. St. Stephen was a martyr in will and deed. St. John the Evangelist was a martyr in will but not in deed as he alone among the twelve died a natural death. Then are the Holy Innocents, martyrs not in will but in deed being slaughtered because of Herod’s attempt to eradicate the new born Christ. John the Baptist was a martyr will and deed. We are called to witness, to die. That being said we need immediately to supply the subject, the Person or event of which and for Whom we are to testify.

In the first five verses of his Gospel the Evangelist speaks of a Person he calls “the Word.” “In the beginning was the Word.” This is the second Person of the Holy Trinity. He was in the beginning and all things were made through Him. The mystery builds as John says, “In him was life.” That is, whereas every living thing since the creation only receives life, as when God “breathed into the first man’s nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7), heavenly, divine, eternal life is of the very essence and being of the living God in Himself. In Him is life!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…. In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:1-2, 4). This is the light we are told about of Whom the Baptist was sent to testify and to announce.

As the sun lights up the physical universe so the life that is in the Word lights up the world and the souls of men. Light is the opposite of darkness as life is the opposite of death. Light equals truth, reality, and encompasses all of God’s will, purpose and plans as they center in His love for the Word and for His whole creation. Psalm 36 confesses this light when it says, “with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Ps 36:9).

In the Nicene Creed we identify the “Son of God, begotten of His father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light….”

As the Word, the Son, the Light was in the beginning, and as light is the first of God’s creation, so it is interesting that the earliest known hymn outside of scripture and the most widely sung in the entire history of the Christian Church is called the Phos Hilaron, “Joyous Light of Glory.” It was first recorded in the 3rd or 4th centuries already there referred to as an “ancient” hymn thought to have been written around the year 150 a.d. We reclaimed this hymn in our recent Lutheran hymnals in its usual place (from the Eastern Orthodox tradition) in the service of Evening Prayer. Look at page 243 in the hymnal….

Usually in Evening Prayer a large candle is brought in procession into the church to these scriptural versicles:

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world,
the light no darkness can overcome.
      Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening,
and the day is almost over.
      Let Your light scatter the darkness
and illumine Your Church.

Then, as the remaining candles in the church are lit, is sung the Phos Hilaron:

Joyous light of glory:
of the immortal Father;
      heavenly holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
      We have come to the setting of the sun,
      and we look to the evening light.
      We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
      You are worthy of being praised
      with pure voices forever.
      O Son of God,
      O Giver of life;
      the universe proclaims Your glory.

We even have always had this hymn in a translation by Robert S. Bridges, 1895, in all of our hymnals, hymn 101 in The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941, and probably even before that in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn Book of the early 1900s known as the “old green hymnal.”

John “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him,” that is, that all might believe in the light, the Word, the Son, through John’s testimony. John “was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”

Notice John’s deflection of all attention to himself as the priests and Levites of the people asked him three questions. “Who are you,” “Are you Elijah?” and “Are you the Prophet?” To the first question he answers by saying who he is not, “I am not the Christ.” The second question about Elijah is based on the prophecy of Malachi 4:5. Again John denies it, saying, “I am not.” It is interesting that even John himself didn’t grasp the significance of his testimony as Jesus would later say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than [John the Baptist],” and, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:11-14). Finally, he simply says “no” to the conjecture that he may be “the prophet like Moses” who was expected. His identity is in his call document from Isaiah 40, “I am the voice,” not of the strongest singers in Jerusalem or America on NBC but, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (v. 23). That’s who he is, the voice, in the wilderness.

Then we hear what we heard last week from St. Mark, the Baptist says “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know….” Notice here the Savior is not proclaimed only as the One to come, but as the One who is already standing among you! I wonder if any of them looked around to see if there were another stranger there? Would He be a stranger to them? Or would they recognize Him as the Messiah?

We are way at the beginning, of course. But even after His tragic murder on the cross of Calvary and burial in a tomb, even as He then appeared to Mary Magdalene as the risen Christ, she did not recognize Him, thinking at first He was the gardener. And think about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel where they didn’t recognize Jesus until, “when he was at table with them, he (the visitor) took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30-31). Then again, on the shore of the sea, even though “they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling,” “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:41, 45).

Can you read the Scriptures, the Bible and still miss the point? Think of the Ethiopian reading from the prophet Isaiah and asking Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35). People need to be told. It wasn’t Philip that opened the man’s mind to understand and recognize Jesus but the Holy Spirit working through the Word, the Bible and Philip’s preaching and witness who enlightened him just as He desires to enlighten you with faith.

Yes, I’m afraid it is possible even to hear the Word, to listen to the liturgy, to be in church and still not hear or understand or recognize the Christ. Conversion, awakening, repentance and faith is most often not a spectacular, dramatic emotional experience. It can be. But it is joy; the joy of discovery, the joyous light of glory,

When [you] behold Jesus Christ,
True God who died for [you],
[And] wonder much at His love
As He hung on the tree.

You had no sin, holy Lord,
But You were tortured, tried;
On Golgotha there for all
My sins You bled and died.

What kind of love is this?
You showed Your love, Jesus, there
To me on Calvary. [LSB 542]

Joyous light of glory!