Hymns of the Early Church by John Brownlieby John Brownlie
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In the Eastern or Greek Church hymnody was in both private and public use from earliest times. The oft-quoted letter of the younger Pliny, written soon after his arrival as Proconsul in the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus, which took place in A.D. 110, informs the Emperor that it was the practice of the Christians to meet together on a certain day and sing antiphonally (secum invicem) a hymn to Christ as their God; while the “Apostolical Constitutions,” which take us back to the life of the Church in the second or third centuries, enjoin the use of morning and evening hymns of praise for God’s beneficence by Christ. From the ample stores of Oriental hymnology there have come into modern collections many of their gems, thanks to the scholarship and versifying skill of Dr. Neale, Keble, and Canon Bright. To the first named we are indebted for such well-known renderings of Greek sacred pieces as “Fierce was the wild billow,” and, “The day is past and over,” as also for “Art thou weary, art thou languid?” From the author of the “Christian Year” we have a beautiful English rendering of a first or second century Greek hymn, preserved by Basil, “Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured;” and from Canon Bright we have the vesper or “lamplighting hymn,” with its opening invocation, “Light of gladness, Beam Divine.”
The Western Church came under Eastern influence in the matter of hymn composition in the fourth century. The first to compose hymns in Latin verse was Hilary of Poitiers. This theologian was banished to Phrygia by the Emperor Constantius, because of his defence of the Nicene Creed from the attacks of the Arian party. During the bishop’s exile, his daughter, Abra, wrote to inform him that she had been sought in marriage, although only in her thirteenth year. This drew forth a reply in which the father left the decision to her own choice, indicating at the same time a personal preference for continued virginity. Enclosed in the communication were a hymnus matutinus and a hymnus vesperinus. The morning hymn, beginning Lucis largitor splendida, is still extant, and has been styled “the oldest authentic original Latin song of praise to Christ as God.” It is, however, more than doubtful if the one for evening use survives; for the hymn, Ad cœli clara non sum dignus sidera, given in the Benedictine edition of Hilary’s works, belongs to the sixth or seventh century, and is probably of Irish authorship.
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