Isaac’s Prayer Journal, excerpt from March 8, 2020
In the back seat of a car for a few hours and having finished some homework, I planned to read a book. However, I remembered from the same passage in the Way of a Pilgrim about how I give my time for God to things that don’t matter. So I decided to pray Evening Prayer first. I was reading the opening prayer, “O Gracious Light …” which I have known since childhood, when I noticed the name was Greek, Phos Hilaron. I looked into it, finding it is the earliest known Christian hymn not in the Bible. I read it in Greek, and was moved to tears by its beauty. Modern liturgy gives so little glory to Christ! My small, dutiful, and reluctant act of turning to him, God has repaid with so much grace.
Isaac’s tombstone was installed this Tuesday. The words Phos Hilaron are written in Greek, at the bottom. (See additional note, below)
Isaac wrote in his pocket notebook, “To talk about with Dad: the Phos Hilaron.”
Isaac never spoke to me about the Phos Hilaron in person. Since Isaac loved to read Scripture in the original Greek, we asked his friend and fellow classics student, Harrison, to suggest something in Greek for Isaac’s tombstone. Harrison suggested the Phos Hilaron. He explained that Isaac told him that he had to read it in Greek, because it’s much more powerful in the original. I later found the journal entries above.
He also wrote about the Phos Hilaron in his academic journal, where Isaac describes the hymn being roughly metrical in Koine Greek. He also noted that St. Basil (c. 350) considered the hymn to be a cherished tradition (thus it was already old at that point).
Here’s the Prayer Book translation:
Our family said the Phos Hilaron together regularly as Isaac was growing up. Historically, it is sung at evening vespers when the lamps are lit. It gives us the imagery of light shining in darkness, and it gives us the promise of a dawn yet to come.
O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing thy praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.
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