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  • Writer's pictureSean O'Leary

O Gladsome Light

The piano has only been around for about 300 years while early flutes made from bone are thought to be about 40,000 years old. There is little doubt that music shaped the story of human development.

It is thought that music was used in religious practices and contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, something that would have aided human cooperation and contributed to overall wellbeing and survival. Some form of music may have existed before language and played a key role in the development of communication.

At one level, music is an organised pattern of sounds that uses some of the oldest works of science and maths to create musical systems. But, there is much more than science to the art of music. Music has been found to promote feelings of generosity, empathy and wellbeing. It is also known to trigger memories, improve emotional regulation and promote creativity.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most common words in the Bible is song (or sing), which can be found over 300 times in the Old Testament. In a biblical context, we can see that music grew from prayer and was grounded in thanksgiving and love.

The light and shade of music speaks to something deep within us that can be difficult to express with words alone. Thoughts, feelings and emotions are richly expressed: sorrow, anguish, fear, hope, joy and love. All of these are more than just words on a page.

Church music has grown from a Trinitarian understanding of creation. The musical experience represents the Spirit who draws us into the love of Christ, which leads us to our heavenly Father.

The singing of Psalms became Gregorian chant and the desire to be in the service of the Word shaped liturgical music. As recorded in Psalms: ‘Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation’.

Church music captures the beauty of God’s glory, the order of creation and the promise of redemption. This invites us to experience the presence of God more deeply by elevating our hearts towards the transforming power of God. Music helps us to respond with stillness, a silence that restores our spirit and makes space for the silent contemplation of the mystery of God.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to walk as fruitful followers of Christ and to serve in love: ‘addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord’. The following short video clip shows one of the most ancient of Christian hymns that is still sung for Vespers in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Titled in Greek ‘Phos Hilaron’, this deeply moving hymn is known in English as ‘O Gladsome Light’. The words and the melody are strikingly beautiful. The hymn speaks of Jesus Christ, who is the true ‘Light’. As we see the setting of the earthly sun, we also contemplate spiritually the ‘Light’ which is life and in whom we have life: Jesus Christ.

St. Basil the Great (329-379 AD) spoke of the singing of the Phos Hilaron as a treasured tradition of the church. A lamp was kept perpetually burning in the empty tomb of Christ, its glow a symbol of the living light of Jesus. In a tradition known as the lighting of the lamps, a candle lit from the lamp was carried from the tomb, its flame calling the people to celebrate the Risen Lord.

Within the Church, there is a vast repertory of sacred music, the enduring inheritance of centuries that forms a beautiful spiritual treasure worthy of the worship of God. Pope Pius XII summarised the journey of sacred music: ‘from the simple and natural Gregorian modes, which are, moreover, quite perfect in their kind, to the great and even magnificent works of art which not only human voices, but also the organ and other musical instruments embellish, adorn and amplify almost endlessly’.


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