Reginald Heber (d.1826) was from a landed Yorkshire family who, having studied at Oxford and travelled for an extended period in Eastern Europe, became Bishop of Calcutta. His influence did much to popularise the use of hymns in England and he set out to provide hymns for all of the Christian Year. He was one of the first to try to integrate, in an act of worship, the Scripture readings, prayers and sermon with the hymn. This hymn is based on the visit of the Magi in St Matthew, an Advent Collect and a Collect used at Evensong. It is usually sung to the tune Epiphany which you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5ACL94B4rM
Brightest and best of the stars of the morning; Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid; Star of the East, the horizon adorning, Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining; Low lies His head with the beasts of the stall; Angels adore Him in slumber reclining, Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all!
Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion, Odours of Edom and offerings divine? Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean, Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation, Vainly with gifts would His favour secure; Richer by far is the heart’s adoration, Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
St Matthew 2:2, 9-11
The Magi asked: asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’…When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This hymn is one of my favourites, associated with Epiphany, which was my mother’s birthday, and the day after mine. Hearing it takes me back to my childhood church. It may seem an odd choice for a child, with various words that I didn’t understand, but nevertheless a vivid image of a child in a manger, surrounded by angels and animals worshipping God.
But alongside this image, perhaps more romantic than accurate, we see the joyfulness of the Magi on finding Jesus, and the final verse which emphasises what oblations God wants from us. Oblation (I still wasn’t sure of the meaning, so had to look it up) is defined as a sacrifice to a god, but in the Christian context refers to the bread and wine of communion. So we understand that the Magi’s joyfulness was more valued than the gold, frankincense and myrrh that they presented so symbolically.
People have struggled over thousands of years to worship God. In the Old Testament, prophets railed against the people for offering sacrifices according to the letter of the law, but with no joy or willingness – empty words and actions. Jesus railed against the religious authorities who demanded adherence to the letter of the laws around the sabbath, while failing to look and see where the true spirit of worship was.
Deuteronomy 6:5 states: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ The passage continues: ‘keep the words in your heart, to bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on your doorposts.’ Sad to say, hands, foreheads and doorposts were embellished, but hearts were not.
Today, towards the beginning of a new year, let us resolve to keep those words in our hearts – not as a ‘nice phrase’ but as a call to action to demonstrate love and joy to all whom we meet each day.
Lord, you have loved each one of us from the moment we existed. Help us to worship you, overcome by joy, loving you with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might. Amen
The Rev’d Sue Cossey, NSM and Synod Pastoral Advisor, South Western Synod is a member of Zion United Church, Frampton Cotterell