Since Church-time immemorial we have sung “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” the oldest of which is known as the Phos Hilaron: the lamp-lighting hymn.
The Phos Hilaron, Latin Lumen Hilare, and sometime known in English as the O joyful light, is a contender for the oldest Christian hymn still in use today. First recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions around the 4th century and likely being written circa 150 A.D., it was chanted during Vespers as oil lamps were lit to replace the waning sun.
Saint Basil the Great called the hymn “one of our oldest and most beloved hymns,” so ancient in fact he didn’t know who wrote it and equated it with being a thanksgiving for the light. During his time a lamp was kept permanently lit at Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem. When early Christians would gather to worship the hymn would be sung. In a tradition known as the lighting of the lamps, a candle lit from the lamp was brought forth from the tomb, its flame calling the Church to celebrate the Risen Lord.
Today the hymn is used in Orthodox Vespers; in Catholic liturgy, it often forms part of the Office of the Dead.
Read below English translations of the Phos Hilaron.
Ruthenian Catholic Church
O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the Father Immortal, the heavenly, holy, blessed One, O Jesus Christ, now that we have reached the setting of the sun, and see the evening light, we sing to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (+). It is fitting at all times to raise a song of praise in measured melody to you, O Son of God, the Giver of Life. Therefore, the universe sings your glory.
Melkite Catholic Church
Oh, Joyful Light, of the Holy Glory of the Father Immortal. Heavenly, Holy, Blessed, Jesus Christ, since we have come, to the setting of the sun, and have seen the evening light, we praise God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (+). It is proper for you to be praised at all times by fitting melody. Oh, Son of God, Giver of Life, wherefore the world glorifies You.