“We three kings of Orient are…” ==== “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews.” Matthew 2:1-2a
It is January 6th, the Christmas Season is over and we are walking into the church season that reveals Jesus to the world: Epiphany.
The carol and the text above are those that lift up the significance of this day. I am sure all of you are familiar with “We three kings of Orient are…” The song was written in 1884 by a pastor, the Rev. Dr. John Hopkins, for a Christmas pageant to be held that year in New York City. The good pastor is taking certain liberties with the Bible story. The visitors were, in Matthew’s mind (see above), not kings at all but professional astronomers – some would even say magicians but that is pressing the Greek word “Magi” a bit far.
They came to worship, and if you came to worship in the ancient Near East, you brought gifts to adore the one you came to worship. So, they brought not baby shower gifts or housewarming presents but “offerings.” Three kinds of gifts translated into three kings, which Dr. Hopkins knows Matthew does not say. But then again, does it really matter? The point is that they brought blessings to the One, who, whether they realized it or not, would bless them in far greater and lasting ways.
The kings are the last of the Christmas narrative characters to arrive at the place where Jesus lived with Mary and Joseph. St. Matthew is quite clear that they came “after” his birth and that phrase can suggest a variety of points in time. I am personally in agreement with the school of thought that says that Jesus was about two years old by the time the visitors arrived. But, again, the chronology is surely not the most important part of this event.
Pastor Hopkins also wrote the music to his song. So, he can be blamed not only for his somewhat loose interpretation of the biblical story, but for writing a song with a refrain that is so memorable. “Oooohh … Ooooooohhh … star of wonder, star of night” – some have argued that this fits a drinking song better than a sacred one. But, I am not a musician so I will leave that judgement to others.
The song has much to admire, really. It does a magnificent job of extolling the meaning of the gifts the Magi presented: Gold because Jesus is truly a king; frankincense (a form of incense) to signify the fire used in ancient Near Eastern worship because Jesus is the King of Heaven; and most chillingly, myrrh, a sedative or medical extract from tree bark. Myrrh, in addition to its value in an ancient medicine chest, was said to have been offered to Jesus, mixed with wine, (Mark 15:23) while he was dying, to mitigate his pain. Of the three gifts, this one is the most unusual to present but ends up having the most significance to the story of a king whose coronation was on a cross.
So, credit Dr. John Hopkins with giving us a song to commemorate the feast of the Epiphany – which means “revealing”. The visit of the Magi, since they were obviously not men of Jewish origin, is now said to be the first “revealing” of Christ outside of the Jewish community. Jesus came for all. He is revealed for who he is: the Son of God, the light of the world who has come to save us from our sin.
Like the kings/magi/astronomers of ancient days so we now come to adore this child once again. We too have seen his star and we too follow him! May your Epiphany Season be bright and may 2021 bring you many blessings, good health and gladness. Happy New Year!