Let’s play Ranker! Here are ten items. They all describe horrible things that could wake someone up. Rank them from bad (#10) to the very worst (#1):

___ a crying baby
___ an airhorn
___ gun shots
___ the fire alarm
___ kids fighting
___ neighbor mowing their lawn
___ cat coughing up hairballs
___ someone knocking on the front door
___ a neighbor’s car alarm
___ someone vomiting

Ranker is a great website, not because they do great journalistic work (because they don’t do anything close to what anyone would call reporting), but because they create controversy. That’s right. Their whole business model is to make statements so that people can fight over it. See, I would argue that a fire alarm is the worst interruption to sleep imaginable, followed closely by someone knocking on the front door. Now, parents, for no good reason whatsoever, would probably argue that a crying baby or kids fighting or someone in the house vomiting would be a much worse way to be awakened than my fire alarm; but really, what do they know.  And they are off and running. Once you posit your opinion and the other person posits theirs, the gloves come off, and we have a controversy. And that is what Ranker is all about—making me feel good. See, I love a good controversy.

Reginald Heber’s Christmas carol, “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning” would probably not show up on anyone’s top ten Christmas carols. Hardly anyone knows it. Hardly any churches sing it. And the arrangement in most hymn books is abysmal. Now, I know that sounds controversial or even opinionated; but give it a listen, and you will see that I am right. It is painful! Now, sometimes we forgive awful things because we grew up with them (case in point, “Away in a Manger”). But I didn’t grow up with “Brightest and Best”; and even if I did, there would be no way I could forgive the hymn version. It is simply awful. The first time I heard the hymn was on contemporary Christian music pioneer John Fischer’s album, “Still Life.” John had taken the hymn and rearranged it and put it in the form that we sing at River’s Edge today. Now, in doing this, John succeeded where so many others have failed. Since being published in 1811, at least 25 others have tried to “fix” this carol by giving it a new arrangement, but all have crashed and burned (see, I’m not opinionated—no one liked this carol).  But John’s rendition was spectacular.

But the tune is just part of the controversy associated with this carol. John Julian in the Dictionary of Hymnology says, “Few hymns of merit had troubled compilers more than this.” Apparently, some people felt that the carol encouraged the worship of stars, and others were offended with its meter being too suggestive of a solemn dance (for many, dancing in any form, suggestive or solemn, is strictly prohibited). Some hymn books even changed the name of the carol to gain interest (“Hail the Blest Morn, See the Great Mediator!”). And to top off all the controversy, Heber (who also wrote the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”) died a mysterious death in India in 1826 while taking a cold bath on a hot, hot day (Was it the shock? Was it a stroke? Was it intrigue?). But even with all that controversy, “Brightest and Best” is a great carol, even if at first, we are not sure what is going on. Here are the lyrics:

      1. Brightest and best of the sons 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.
      2. Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining;
        Low lies His head with the beasts of the stall;
        Angels adore Him in slumber reclining,
        Maker and Monarch and Savior of all!
      3. Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion,
        Odors of Edom and off’rings divine?
        Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
        Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?
      4. 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.
      5. Brightest and best of the sons 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 first verse is beautiful (just note all the images of light – brightest, morning, dawn, star, horizon and Star of the East – all these illuminating descriptions), but it causes all the controversy because most of us aren’t sure who the sons of the morning are. And for good reason. It is confusing. In Job (38:7), the sons of the morning are angels (you can see that in the parallelism, “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”). However, in Isaiah 14, the morning star is depicted as either the King of Babylon (vs. 4) or the force behind him (Satan). Here is verse 12: “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” However, in Revelation 22:16, Jesus identifies himself with the bright Morning Star. There, we read: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” However (I know that is three ‘howevers’ in a row!) in the verse, it seems that the “sons of the morning” is parallel to and identified with “the Star of the East.” However, interestingly, the Star of the East is capitalized, so it is not just a star (or even the planet Venus which is often called the morning star), but must be a name. However, stars don’t usually have names, unless the star is symbolic for something else or someone else. And that is the point. In Numbers we are told (24:17) that “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel,” and this verse was understood by many (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) to be a messianic reference. And it seemed that 2 Peter understood it this way (2 Peter 1:19 – “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”).  Why is this so confusing? Because I am convinced that Heber is intentionally making us think.  Here are the Magi. The whole first verse is from their perspective. They are riding to Bethlehem, and they are praying for God to direct them to the newborn king. But technically, they are asking the star itself to guide them, not because they worshipped the stars, but because they knew the star was God’s instrument to lead them to the Christ Child. But all prayers for guidance, for wisdom, for spiritual leading are offered to Jesus. He disperses our darkness as the light of the world. He is the brightest and best of all the angelic host. It is his star that the Magi are seeking. And so, this prayer to a star is actually a prayer that God would guide them and give them Jesus, the brightest and best Morning Star who is truth and beauty and God’s glory and goodness.

The second stanza is no less impressive. It focuses on Jesus’ humanity and deity, for this little baby is actually our Maker, our Monarch and our Savior. And once we recognize that, we feel compelled along with the Magi to offer gifts of worship (stanzas 3 and 4). But what should we give? The Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. But what about us? What God wants us to give more than anything else is our hearts’ adoration. To love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. God delights in our prayers more than anything else. And that leads us back to the first stanza where we ask God to lead us so we can worship the newborn king alongside of the Magi. It is our reasonable worship. It is our gift that we lay down before him. It is our joy.

I love this carol. It speaks to my heart. It calls us to worship. It calls us to give ourselves freely to the one who is our Maker and Monarch and Savior. And any carol that effectively does all of that and does so with passion, beauty, enthusiasm and great poetic skill has to be seen as one of our most favorite Christmas carols of the season. And to me, that is not controversial at all.