Friday, June 10, 2011

Christ is the World's True Light

Praise for the Lord #83

Words: George W. Briggs, 1931
Music: DARMSTADT, Ahasuerus Fritsch, 1679; arr. J.S. Bach, 1724

A common misconception I have run into among my brothers and sisters in the Churches of Christ, is the idea that the classical hymn (of the Watts and Wesley type) is a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, the 20th century quickly produced works in this tradition that were often better than their Victorian predecessors. By the closing decades of the century the "hymn explosion" in Great Britain was in full bloom, and a sort of ecclesiastical British Invasion of the United States was underway. We just don't know these hymns in the Churches of Christ (at least most of us in the United States), because after Elmer Jorgenson's large infusion of classical hymnody via Great Songs of the Church, in the first third of the 20th century, this style had relatively few advocates among us to keep up with the new developments. (The 1990s hymnals Praise for the Lord and Songs of Faith and Praise made some amends to this neglect.)

George Wallace Briggs (1875-1959) was a Cambridge-educated Anglican priest who rose to be the Vicar of Worcester. (He should not be confused with George Ware Briggs, 1810-1895, who was a Unitarian minister and hymnwriter from Boston.) He left an indelible mark on English-language hymnody, both as a writer and as a co-founder of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, an institution that coincided with the 20th-century revival in the classical hymn.("Briggs") Another of his widely sung hymns is PFTL #198, "God has spoken by His prophets," a thoughtful and timely hymn on the authority of God's word.

Erik Routley, the British hymnologist whose pointed, witty analysis could make Simon Cowell appear warm and fuzzy, wrote of his friend Briggs:
An author of the "traditional" kind who succeeded excellently in writing simple and persuasive material for our time was the late G. W. Briggs. . . .

That kind of material, unspectacular and innocent but sound and honest, can add much to the virility of a modern hymnbook, and will appeal to those whose tastes are traditional without assenting to any unwillingness to be surprised.(Routley, 158ff.)
I can't think of any better praise for a modern hymnwriter; in an era when the cultural divide between the churched and unchurched is almost inconceivably broad, what better way to speak to our time than through strong, simple language? And Routley's almost reverent tone, especially coming from one who so often delivered withering rebukes, indicates to me that Briggs is a hymnwriter I should get to know better.

Stanza 1:
Christ is the world's true Light,
Its Captain of Salvation,
The Day-Star clear and bright
Of ev'ry man and nation.
New life, new hope awakes
Where'er men own His sway;
Freedom her bondage breaks,
And night is turned to day.

Briggs starts with a time-tested method for writing a great hymn--he quotes the Scriptures. The passages that refer to Jesus as "the Light" are too numerous to mention, but there are three particular aspects of the topic especially pertinent to this stanza.

In the great cosmic overture to the gospel according to John, the apostle states that, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."(John 1:4-5) In terms of actual physical phenomena, light is something, but darkness is nothing. Light is the presence of a form of energy, and darkness is its absence. Likewise, life is the presence of certain vital functions, and death is their absence. The darkness could not comprehend or overpower the light, because ultimately, the prince of darkness is nothing, and Jesus is everything.

Second, that light equals some sort of information and understanding. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."(John 8:12) As if to make the case even plainer, He later said,
"The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going."(John 12:35)
We are naturally fearful to walk in physical darkness, and instinctively put a hand out to protect ourselves from a sudden collision with an unseen obstacle, because we do not trust ourselves to go forward without information about what is in front of us. Why we are so willing to do this very thing spiritually, in such a cavalier manner, is a great mystery. Perhaps the natural body has a greater instinct for self-preservation than does the immortal soul.

Finally, the light Jesus brings comes with a responsibility to respond. Having information does not mean one will follow it, and odd though it would be, we could have plenty of light but insist on shutting our eyes and walking in darkness anyway. Thus Jesus spoke of "walking" in the light, that is, making an active response to the light. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." What we do once we are there is up to us. John develops this theme most thoroughly in his first epistle:
If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.(1 John 1:6-7)
Briggs next calls on two other names of Jesus, one of them relatively little-used. "Captain of Salvation" is from Hebrews 2:9-10 (King James Version),
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became Him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
We use the term "captain" today for a military officer or a commander of a vessel, which is not the full sense of the Greek archēgos, though it does mean "prince" or "chief." The same expression is used in Hebrews 12:2, calling Jesus "the Author and Finisher of our faith."("Archēgos")

"Day Star" as a name for Jesus can be found in 2 Peter 1:19 (King James Version): "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the Day Star arise in your hearts." The morning star is of course the harbinger of dawn, calling to mind the similar expression found in the touching Song of Simeon at the end of the first chapter of Luke:
And you, Child, will be called the Prophet of the Highest;
For You will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace."(Luke 1:76-79)
Perhaps Briggs had this in mind as well, as the passage ties in neatly with the overall theme of Jesus as the Light of the world and Prince of peace.

In the second half of the stanza Briggs introduces another great theme of the hymn, Jesus as our Liberator from bondage. Jesus spoke plainly about mental slavery and freedom, and of His role in emancipating those who are willing:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, "If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

They answered Him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that You say, 'You will become free'?"

Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.(John 8:31-36)
Probably the best-known phrase from this passage is the pithy line, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." But just as was discussed previously about walking in the light, there are two contingencies upon which this freedom depends: first, we must hear the truth, and second, we must be willing for it to free us. It was on the second point that Jesus' hearers failed, as do so many people today. Ironically, not only did they fail to acknowledge the historical reality of their nation's enslavement to Rome, but they told themselves a far worse lie by refusing to acknowledge their personal enslavement to sin. The Light will guide us, but only if we are willing to open our eyes.

Briggs suggests this truth by the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory ideas: "freedom her bondage breaks" only when "men own His sway." There is no freedom from sin without submission to Christ, turning from one master to the other. Paul makes this point in the sixth chapter of Romans:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.(Romans 6:16-18)
As Bob Dylan's song rightly said, "Gotta serve somebody." Serving self seems like freedom but is ultimately slavery; submission to Christ seems to the outsider like slavery, but its outcome is the ultimate liberation.

Stanza 2:
In Christ all races meet,
Their ancient feuds forgetting,
The whole round world complete,
From sunrise to its setting.
When Christ is throned as Lord,
Men shall forsake their fear,
To plowshare beat the sword,
To pruning hook the spear.

In the second stanza, Briggs expands on the line in the first stanza, "of ev'ry man and nation." The world of 1931 was just as troubled as our own, if not more so. India was slowly, painfully marching toward independence from the British Empire. In the United States, the sham trial of the "Scottsboro boys" was yet another outbreak of that disease of racism that so disfigured our ideals of liberty. There were revolutions in South America, Franco established a new government in Spain, and Mao established the first Chinese Soviet Republic. The National Socialist party was on the rise in Germany. The world banking system was out of control and appeared ready to collapse.(Wikipedia)

Ecclesiastes 4:1 rightly says, "I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun; and behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter." It was true then, it was true when Briggs wrote, and sadly, it remains true today. But Christ came to bring enlightenment, and He means for us to play our part in fighting back the darkness. Though He is the ultimate Light of the world, He means for us to reflect that light as best we can:
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."(Matthew 5:14-16)
And if we need any further explanation that "walking in the light" is an active, practical, everyday matter, John tells us that,
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.(1 John 2:9-10)
We do not know specifically what kind of hatred John refers to, but we know that the early Christians struggled mightily with the transition of the faith from a Jewish-centered community to one that included all nations. Peter, though he was known to have lapses (see Galatians 2!), strongly stated the new understanding they had to embrace after his encounter with the Roman centurion, Cornelius: "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality; but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him."(Acts 10:34-35) And if they are acceptable to God, are they not good enough for me?

Briggs emphasizes the uniting power of Christ to overcome these differences. "In Christ all races meet," because Christ is the "new Adam." Paul staked out the philosophical high ground in his sermon at Athens, declaring that God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth."(Acts 17:26) In the letter to the Romans he built on this foundation, arguing that,
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned--for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the One who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.(Romans 5:12-15)
Jesus is also the "new Adam" in the sense that He is "the firstborn from the dead,"(Colossians 1:18) and though "what we will be has not yet appeared," we are assured that "when He appears we shall be like Him."(1 John 3:2) We who are Christians are already a "new creation" on the inside,(Galatians 6:15) and someday we shall be re-created on the outside as well. To the extent that we are truly born again, race and nationality should be understood as the transitory, incidental things they actually are by comparison. When we are more like Christ, we will be able to see every person as a brother or sister, a child of our heavenly Father, and can begin to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4,
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
Stanza 3:
One Lord, in one great name
Unite us all who own Thee;
Cast out our pride and shame
That hinder to enthrone Thee.
The world has waited long,
Has travailed long in pain,
To heal its ancient wrong;
Come, Prince of Peace, and reign!

Is that unity possible? Sometimes we seem further from it than ever, but it was never easy; Paul describes it as "endeavoring [NIV 'making every effort'; ASV 'being diligent'] to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."(Ephesians 4:3) The Greek verb beginning that verse is the same used in Hebrews 4:11, "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest."("Spoudazō") We are called to work for the unity of the church with the same diligence with which we seek our personal salvation!

But how far are we willing to go? Consider the following quotation from a well-known preacher and author among the Churches of Christ:
We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the same community for persons of separate and distinct races. That race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love, and brotherhood in Christ Jesus.(quoted in Campbell, 29)
This statement would stir controversy even today in far too many communities--but it was written by David Lipscomb in the Gospel Advocate in 1878! He was a Southerner, writing in Nashville only twelve years after the Civil War--right at the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow. As the people at Nazareth said of Jesus, "Where did this man get these things?"(Mark 6:2) He got them from the Word of God, faithfully applied, without fear or favor. This is what can happen when we, as Briggs says in his hymn, "Cast out our pride and shame / That hinder to enthrone Thee."

Of course there are divisions that are not of our individual making, that we personally cannot help; for example, when a division comes about over a matter of doctrine, at least one side may be right, and cannot help but be divided from those in the wrong. But I wonder how often division has really been over doctrine, as compared to division over matters of opinion, matters of culture, or even matters of personality, that simply were not handled in an humble and Christ-like spirit? How often has fellowship been hindered by the jealous guarding of power? How often has it been hindered by the old excuses, "We are all happier as things are," or, "They are welcome to come over here any time they choose?"

I am not talking only of race--have we not seen the same kind of segregation take place between age groups within churches, between social classes, and even between groups with different preferences in worship music styles? Sadly, we cannot deny the accusation of Paul: "For you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?"(1 Corinthians 3:3) God help us to keep our eyes fixed on the light of Jesus Christ, "Who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."(1 Timothy 2:4)

About the music:

Ahasuerus Fritsch (1629-1701), who wrote the melody sometimes known as "DARMSTADT," was the son of a small-town Burgermeister and lawyer. The dislocations of the Thirty Years' War brought the family to Jena, where young Ahasuerus pursued his father's profession at the city's famous university. In 1657 he became tutor to Count Albrecht Anton at Rudolstadt, which became his chief source of support. A true Renaissance man, he contributed to scholarship in jurisprudence, theology, and anthropology, as well as writing hymn poetry and tunes.(Göschel, 359ff.)

This tune first appeared in the 1679 edition of Fritsch's chorale collection Himmels-Lust und Welt Un-Lust ("Desire for Heaven and Disdain for the World"), with the text "O Gott, du frommer Gott" ("O God, Thou faithful God") by Johann Heermann. Its popular name "DARMSTADT" came from its use in the "Darmstadt Hymnal," the Geistreiches Gesangbuch published in that city in 1698. In this work it was set to the text, "Was frag ich nach der Welt?" ("What ask I of this world?").(

The congregational chorales remained at the heart of the Lutheran church music tradition even as a complex choral and instrumental repertoire built up around them, and tunes such as DARMSTADT infused the works of the great Lutheran classical composers such as J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn. Dietrich Buxtehude, greatly admired by the young J. S. Bach, wrote a cantata using DARMSTADT (BuxWV 104). Bach himself used this tune in several of his cantatas; it makes brief appearances in BWV 45, 64, 128, 129, and 197a, and was the basis of the entire cantata Was frag ich nach der Welt? (BWV 94). This is an excellent example of how a composer wove a chorale into a large-scale work; despite the complexity of his writing, the familiar old tune (at least to his audience) is always around the next corner.(Bach Cantatas) A full score of this work is available at,_BWV_94_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian), and high-quality performances are available on Youtube.

Bach never seems to have set a melody the same way twice, even when writing in the traditional chorale style with its straightforward treatment of the melody and (relatively) conservative counterpoint. I have been unable to identify the exact source of the version of DARMSTADT found in Praise for the Lord, but it appears to be closest to Bach's setting of the tune in the final movement of BWV 45, the cantata Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist ("It has been told you, O man, what is good"). The most notable difference is the running bass line in the second phrase, found in the version in the hymnal but not in Bach's BWV 45. Perhaps this was spliced in from another version by an editor who was a bass singer!

As usual for the Bach chorales, the melody itself is not so difficult, but the harmonization--which was intended not for the congregation, but for the choir and instruments--is atrociously difficult for the average congregation. Bach's writing is always worth the effort, but in this case I wish the editors had chosen one of the simpler versions of this tune that can be found in nearly any Lutheran hymnal.


"George Wallace Briggs." Cyberhymnal.

Routley, Erik. Hymns Today and Tomorrow. New York: Abingdon, 1964.

"Archēgos." Thayer's Lexicon, from

"1930." Wikipedia.

"1931." Wikipedia.

"Spoudazō." Thayer's Lexicon, from

Campbell, Will D. Race and the Renewal of the Church. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962. Excerpt at

Göschel, Karl Friedrich. Zur theologisch-juristischen Biographie und Literatur. Schleussingen: Conrad Glaser, 1842.

"O Gott, du frommer Gott (Fritsch)."

"O Gott, du frommer Gott." Chorale melodies used in Bach's vocal works.

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