Our first Sunday of the month is the Feast of the Epiphany, and all of the month is included in this season. Epiphany is a word which comes from the Greek for “manifestation”. We celebrate how God reveals Himself and His will to us, supremely in the coming of His Son. We remember (in the account of the visitation of the magi to the infant Jesus found at Mtt. 2.1—12) that the coming of the Messiah to Israel was manifested to all peoples.
In Epiphany we encounter the familiar carol, We, three kings of Orient are (no. 128), but this hymn is familiar enough that we can pass, for now, further consideration. Let us focus, rather, on hymns that are less familiar.
A recurrent trope in Epiphany hymns is one of light shining forth. This comes both from the theme of manifestation and from the story that the Christ was first manifested to the gentiles (the magi) by a star, the Star of Bethlehem. Thus we encounter a favorite hymn, no. 124, What star is this …?, with words by Charles Coffin (1676—1749), set to a much older melody found in the 15th C. collection from the cathedral in Trier, Germany. The tune (also used for no. 193) is known as Puer nobis nascitur, Latin for “a child is born to us”, and we encounter it in the form of a 16th C. reworking by the composer Michael Praetorius (Schultze: Praetor is Latin for “mayor”, rendered in German as Schultze). We can thank Praetorius, as well, for the beautiful Christmas hymn, Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming (no. 81) and for a wonderful set of secular dances known as Terpsichore.
Charles Coffin wrote the words for this hymn in Latin. We sing an 19th C. English translation. The words echo the reaction of the magi: “What star is this, with beams so bright, more beauteous than the noonday light?” The words, however, recite both the coming of the Christ as the fulfillment of prophecy and with the reality that within all light (the star) shines “a brighter light” )the revelation of God).
Coffin was the rector of the University of Paris (Sorbonne). While acting as principal of a notable secondary school in Paris (the Collège de Beauvais) he rose to prominence after giving the funeral oration for Louis, Duke of Burgundy, father of King Louis XV. This did not prevent the king from cooperating in the Church’s denial of Last Rites to Coffin, because Coffin had appealed against the papal bull Unigenitus, which condemned a teaching associated with French Jesuits known as Jansenism. In one sense, then, Coffin was a sort of distant cousin of Protestantism, and his inclusion in the hymnal is another example of the ecumenical character of both good words and good music.