A central element of vespers in eastern and western Christian traditions is the ancient hymn phos hilaron, which as Robert Taft notes in his history of daily prayer was already considered ancient at the time of St. Basil. It is a hymn of praise sung at the lighting of the evening lamp – a custom rooted in both Jewish and pagan practice in antiquity.

When I lived in the United States it was difficult to appreciate the joy the hymn expresses at the coming of the light. The evenings in the part of the country I lived in were never really dark enough in the early evening to view the kindling of the evening light as anything other than a liturgical gesture – important, but one with a certain abstract quality.

That’s changed since I came to live in Finland. When it gets pitch-dark in the late afternoons at this time of year, lighting candles is more than a gesture – the act brings joy and relief to the oppressive dark.

Now if we can only somehow connect these two realities in the church’s teaching here . . .

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