Vesper Light: A Commentary on the Evening Canticles

By

Evening is when one of two things can happen to us as fallen children of Adam. We either thank God for the day’s victories or dread the onset of the night’s terror. We watch as the sun goes to its rest, mirroring us, or we fidget and search for ways to keep the lights on.

Prayer is one of the best ways to end our day and prepare to enter into God’s appointed time of refreshment; the Anglican Tradition has agreed with this in its Morning and Evening Prayer offices, also called Mattins and Evensong. Both of these times contain various songs to guide us in our worship.

Sponsored

Three beautiful songs guide us into holy rest. These short and compact tunes serve as guideposts to correct our hearts as we end our day. One of these is the Magnificat (the Song of Mary), which I’ve reflected on previously. However, Evening Prayer begins with the Phos Hilaron, an ancient hymn, and ends with the Nunc Dimittis (the Song of Simeon). A meditation on each of these will serve as a short breath from the day’s labors before ending our time in rest and quietness.

Phos Hilaron

O gladsome 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 your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
You are 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. 

Our nightly journey begins with something old. While only added to Evening Prayer in the 1979 Prayer Book and kept for the 2019 edition, the roots of the Phos Hilaron are deep. Records show it being sung by the bishops at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, meaning it was likely written long before, during Roman persecution. The Prayer Book, as always, roots us in the past. It reminds us of the common faith we share with those who came before us, many of whom suffered and died to preserve the truths we now sing together. Their life, however, is a testimony to the power of the Gospel, for those who had suffered at the hands of Rome were called to Nicea by Emperor Constantine, who humbly addressed them as “my brothers.”

The beauty of creation points us to our Triune God. We must tread lightly here: there are always dangers in making every shadow and beam of light an analogy for the Trinity. Every Christian knows a dear old saint who can see a divine message in her mashed potatoes. However, we must not let this danger stop us from seeing God’s glory, and this canticle rightly points us to that fact. Christ is the radiance of God’s glory, like the sun’s rays display its incredible power. As those rays warm us, Christ warms our very being. He is, indeed, worthy to be praised by all peoples, as the sun gives light to all nations.

Nunc Dimittis

We know the last canticle of the day as the Nunc Dimitis. It comes from the mouth of Simeon in Luke 2: the aged man took our Lord in his arms and loudly proclaimed that he could die in peace. It is fitting to end our day and approach our death-like slumber with these joyful words.

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, * 
according to your word. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, * 
which you have prepared before the face of all people; 
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, * 
and to be the glory of your people Israel.

The song itself is not long: 7 lines, one stanza, containing 46 words in the translation provided in the Prayer Book. The speaker begins by affirming his rest in God’s promises: he may now die in peace as God has fulfilled his word to his servant. He had patiently waited to see “the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). He followed the Holy Spirit’s guidance to the Temple that day amidst all his bodily aches and pains. His knees had creaked, his joints had hurt, and his back was giving him a fit once more. And as he stepped into the Temple court and lifted his head, his eyes filled with tears. His heart leaped inside of him. He knew now that he could finally die and go to his rest. 

What gave him this confidence to die? How could this aged man, who had lived into the period of life where every breath was a battle (Psalm 90), finally be willing to lay down his sword? He could rest for one reason: God has kept his promise. The Salvation of Israel, the Redeemer of God’s people, had come squealed as a baby before Simeon’s eyes, and he had come to save the world. He did not come to save the Jews alone; he did not come to redeem the Egyptians or save the Assyrians; Christ, the Messiah, came to save all peoples.

What glory we find in this passage! Our Savior came as a baby, wrapped in strips of cloth, and came to save all humankind. He came to live before us openly: He did not hide himself in a majestic corner for only the benighted few, nor did he demand that we climb the mountain of philosophical reasoning and speculation. Those paths, in fact, are rarely ever the way to him (1 Cor. 1-3). Instead, the way to God is this way: through the cries of a baby that leads to a wooden cross, culminating in a resurrected Lord.

With these words, we understand how Simeon could close his eyes in peace. We can also see how it leads us to take our little piece of rest each night. May God Almighty give us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.


Image of a ruined abbey, York, UK, by deadpixelohoto from Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Author

James Hodges

James Hodges, of Ridgeway, VA, is a Kindergarten Teacher in the local public school system and teaches the Junior Church in his local congregation. He is husband to Anna and father to Lilabet.

View more from James Hodges

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

2 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments