This is the cake that I took to the party last night. It was very fun. Lots of interesting reminiscences. The group I was with had all known one another for decades, and I was a new person to tell all the best stories to, so I got a sort of recap of the Greatest Hits.
Today, I have a really nice Epiphany hymn for you. “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning” was written by a CofE guy, Reginald Heber, who set out to write a hymn for each Sunday and feast day of the Cof E calendar, and almost made it. This is his hymn for Epiphany.
In the United States, this hymn was changed (for the Presbyterian Hymnal at least) to “Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning,” because “son of the morning” was used to describe Lucifer, AKA Satan, at one point (Isaiah 14:12, to be precise). The new words would of course refer to Job 38:7, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”
I have all these references at my fingertips because I own The Penguin Book of Carols, which goes on at this point to say, “Several hymnal editors have refused to include the hymn on the grounds that it incites star worship.”
I know I’ve shared this with you before, because I absolutely love that idea.
I mean, there you are in church. You have gone through the solemn time of Advent and the holy time of Christmas and come back to church for Epiphany —
— I know this about you, because if you are Baptist or atheist or something, you’re not going to be singing Epiphany hymns, now are you? Anyone might sing Christmas carols, but Epiphany carols are kind of specialized. Atheists aren’t even in church on Epiphany, I bet.
Anyway, there you are, filled with the joy of the season and perhaps some nice leftovers from Twelfth Night parties, and you sing these words:
“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.”
The sweetness of James Harding’s fine Victorian tune caresses your ear, and a strange sensation steals over you: a desire to worship stars.
Huh? Can worship be incited? Is a church a good place to incite worship of inanimate objects, even really big ones like stars? And, if it is possible to incite worship, how could it possibly be done with words like that? Is the incipient star worshipper going to hear that the star is “bright” and “adorning” something and even, hey, “of the east” and be moved from love of God (who is also in that sentence, with a capital letter and everything) to love of stars?
Why wouldn’t it lead to worship of horizons? or infants?
Maybe the objectors are bothered by the fact that the song is apparently addressed to a star, once you replace the “sons” with “stars.” Maybe the idea of the Star of Bethlehem as a metaphor for God bothers them.
I may be hindered in understanding this by a lack of knowledge about star worship, too. I don’t know what a person who, singing this pretty hymn in a blameless pew, felt incited to star worship would do next.
I went to Google with this question, because it is after all the 21st century, so that’s what we do. I found this demented website which explained that “When Israel fell into musical idolatry God turned them over to the worship of the starry host.” I assume that this covers the topic pretty throughly. Like so many mad ravings, the discussion at that site is really deficient in structure, so I am not sure I have grasped what they’re saying. They are, however, the top website for incitement to star worship, so I guess they have some authority.
I think modern idolatry tends to focus more on material possessions than on stars, but this may again be ignorance on my part. I think, though, that if I wanted to incite someone to worship something, I would give away cars rather than writing hymns, especially such mild hymns.
“Worship a star!
We’ll give you a car!”
That might work better.
Tonight, Twelfth Night, is the last night of revelry before you start getting serious again. We will therefore be taking down the Christmas tree and wreaths and garlands. Note how I say “we,” as though other people at my house were likely to help me with these tasks.
They might, though. Maybe I can incite them to housekeeping.