'Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning'
Greetings from Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado.
Jan. 5 was the 12th day of Christmas and today, Wednesday, is the celebration of Epiphany -- remembering how God guided the Magi to the Christ child by a star. This is also known as "Three Kings Day" and is the official start of Mardi Gras. Therefore, I have chosen to review the hymn "Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning."
Reginald Heber (1738-1826), an Anglican clergyman, composed the hymn for his congregation in Hodnet, Shropshire, England. The first printed copy is from 1811 and was originally named "Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning." Some hymnals today keep the original title. "Sons of the morning" alludes to either Isaiah 14:12 (KJV) or Job 38:7 (KJV). The sons/stars of the morning are angels that continually glorify God.
The hymn has five stanzas though the first and the last are identical. They constitute a prayer that our darkness might be illuminated. These stanzas created controversy in the 19th century as some assumed Heber was worshipping a star and not God. The line resonates in two ways. In one sense it points to the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem and the other is Christ. Jesus in Revelation 22:16 (ESV) calls himself "bright morning star." "I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." In this sense Heber is asking Jesus to "dawn on our (spiritual) darkness."
Stanza two accents the incarnation of Christ with the phrases "low lies His head with the beasts of the stall" and later in the stanza proclaims him, "Maker and Monarch and Savior of all."
In stanza three Heber has the worshipper wrestle with how to best honor the Christ child. He references the gifts of the Magi with the words, "fragrance of Edom," "Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine." Plus, he includes gems and pearls. It is unclear why he refers to frankincense as "fragrance of Edom" as Edom has little to do with the nativity of Christ or the origin of frankincense.
Stanza four answers the question found in stanza three. It shows God's magnificent grace and that it cannot be repaid. "Vainly we offer each ample oblation, Vainly with gifts would His favor secure." You can't buy God's favor/grace, for it is a free gift -- the cost, of course, was the death of His Son. It points out that it is not monetary gifts that God wants anyway. The "hearts adoration," and "prayers of the poor" are more endearing to Him. The words echo David's words in Psalm 51:17 "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."
The tune was composed by James P. Harding in 1892, possibly intended for another text.
My resource is the Lutheran Service Book Companion to the Hymns Vol 1., CPH, St. Louis, 2019, pgs. 195-197.
The Lord bless your New Year.
• David Otten is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado.