“Brightest and Best” This classic hymn, written by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), whose autograph is in the collection of the writer of music notes, observes the “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,” referring to Jesus. In John 8: 12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Epiphany literally means “revelation,” although perhaps we should call it Theophany, the “revelation of God.” As the daylight hours gradually increase from the depths of winter (such as it is in Texas), in the liturgical year we also read of Christ’s revelation to the wise men, His baptism and His first miracles, enlightening our minds as to who this Messiah might be. Yet, Epiphany is in a sense covenantal—it requires something of us; recently we sang a hymn entitled “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” emphasizing Jesus’ words in John 8 that we must “follow Him.” Indeed, Isaiah 42: 6 speaks of such a covenant—“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Clearly this dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, as politically-incorrect as the terms may be today, have their basis in scripture all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
“Brightest and Best” was obviously written for Epiphany, as its reference to the guiding “Star of the East” makes clear. This hymn, like others of Heber’s (such as “Holy, holy, holy”), is strong on florid poetry. The writer of music notes considers the first two stanzas to be romanticizations which simply lead to the theological heart of the hymn in stanzas three and four. The first stanza, strangely enough, calls on the “stars of the morning” to “lend us thine aid,” presumably to find the young Jesus, to “guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.” The second stanza is still florid, with its flowery allusions to shining “dewdrops,” although at the end He is referenced as the “Maker, Monarch and Saviour of all.” Heber makes clear the fact that this baby is clearly God. This leads to the more substantive third stanza which personalizes our response to this incarnate God—“Shall we not yield Him, in costly devotion, fragrance of Edom and offerings divine, Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean, myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?” Cleverly, Heber is here spiritually satirizing the gifts of the Magi. Indeed, the primary reason the Magi visited Jesus was to worship Him. (“We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” Luke 2: 2b) Herod himself realized this primary purpose of the visit when he implored them to tell him where the baby Jesus was so that “I too may go and worship Him.” (Luke 2: 8b) The gold, frankincense and myrrh were only tokens of the spiritual worship they offered to Him. This, then, Heber makes clear in the following stanza, “Vainly we offer each ample oblation, vainly with gifts would His favor secure. Richer by far is the heart’s adoration; dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.” The Magis’ visit was characterized by worship, not gifts. Here Heber implores the worshipper to worship in “spirit and in truth,” perhaps reflecting the heartfelt worship of the tax collector whose humble spirit in saying “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” contrasted with the boistrous prayer of the pharisee. (Luke 18: 9-14) It is not because of our works or gifts that we are saved, but by faith.