If you aren’t one to follow the Christian liturgical calendar, it might seem strange to sing, or write about, a “Christmas” song after the 25th. For those familiar with the liturgical calendar, you know that the 12 Days of Christmas isn’t a countdown to get us to Christmas day. Instead, the “12 Days” is the length of the Christmas season that lasts until Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany Sunday is the day we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah with the witness of the Wise Men.
That’s right, despite what your porcelain nativity set taught you, everyone didn’t show up on the same evening. And when the “Wise Men” showed up, well, we have little information about that. The Wise Men, Three Kings, Magi: they have a small cameo in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. And that has been enough for a veritable cottage industry of theories, pictures, porcelain figurines, and songs.
The story in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us how many wise men there were, only the number of gifts (three). And we have no indication that they were kings. All of this is the invention of John Henry Hopkins Jr., a single Episcopal rector who wrote this song to fill in the lack of carols for Christmastide (another name for the 12 days of Christmas).
It is that Christmas carol, the curious “We Three Kings” that we are looking at today in our examination of the origin and meaning of Christmas carols
Hopkins wrote the lyrics and melody. The lyrics are an embellishment on the singular Gospel inclusion of the Magi. The tune, which starts in a minor key, uses triple meter to evoke a medieval, almost middle-eastern sounding lilt. It’s a beautiful hymn that makes a harmonic shift for the hopeful refrain of:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
But just as singing Christmas carols after Christmas might strike you as odd, so too should the story that inspired the song. Who were these kings, after all? At some point in history, the visitors were likely turned into kings to validate western rulers who would have liked to see themselves at the nativity scene. It was John Calvin, among others, who pointed out the obvious unwarranted decision to suck up to local authorities with the identification of the wise men as monarchs.
So what were they? Most likely, there were Magi, the plural of Magus, meaning some kind of sorcerer. Simon Magus was the sorcerer that Peter confronts in the ninth chapter of the book of Acts. Magus, or Magi, was a reference to people that worked in what we might call “metaphysics” at best or “sorcery” at worst. They were probably some kind of courtly figures in a Persian court. Whatever they are, or were, it doesn’t lessen how strange it is for them to appear at the incarnation. Why would they be there, and why would Matthew think it necessary to tell us about this visitation?
Despite being foreigners and practitioners of another religion, they have the sense to know that something is going on. After all, when Herod hears that a “king is born,” he knows this is supposed to happen in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5). Similarly, something has tipped off these Magi, and they have a star leading them to Herod and then to Bethlehem to seek and find the newborn and his parents in a stable.
Both Matthew, and Hopkins Jr., focus on the gifts brought to the Christ child. And while we might be able to recite the three gifts from memory –gold, frankincense, and myrrh – you may not know how these gifts were related to the role of these foreign prophets and what they said about the child they were gifted to.
In Hopkins Jr’s telling of the story, we get more of an explanation as to what these meant. The gold was to mark the Christ child as royalty.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign
The frankincense, a kind of incense, was meant to signify the deity of Christ. Incense, in a church service or in allegory, represents the prayers of the faithful ascending to God in heaven (Rev 5:8).
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
And finally, the gift of myrrh. The first two gifts might seems strange but appropriate. But myrrh is a funeral gift. Gifting it to baby Jesus is the equivalent of bringing a baby-sized coffin to a child’s first birthday. But if the Holy Family didn’t know what to do with that gift on that first Christmas, Hopkins spells it out for us with the third stanza:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
This is the wonder, and paradox, and curious nature of the good news of a God born to die. Even if those Magi and the other manger-side visitors didn’t quite get it yet, with nearly two thousand years of hindsight, we can rejoice in this final mysterious gift. It is a reminder of who this child will become in death. Here is the first couplet of the final stanza from Hopkins:
Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
It wasn’t the strict religiosity amongst Herod’s scribes, nor was it the mysticism or piety of the various messianic sects within Judaism that God used to proclaim the kingship, deity, and ultimate sacrifice of His son.
Three (or more) outsiders crash the Christmas story, only crack one of the four gospels, and bring a curious arrangement of gifts for the child that they’ve learned about through some kind of curious natural theology and the help of a star. It’s a weird story, but one that we can embrace for all it’s weirdness. This is a post-Christmas Christmas hymn about a couple of Persian wizards that drop some serious foreshadowing on the Babe of Bethlehem with their gifts. We don’t need to understand it all to know there’s a common theme here we might be tempted to overlook for familiarity’s sake: God uses the outsiders and the obscure to shame the wisdom of the world. It wasn’t the strict religiosity amongst Herod’s scribes, nor was it the mysticism or piety of the various messianic sects within Judaism that God used to proclaim the kingship, deity, and ultimate sacrifice of His son. He used some number of obscure Persian wizards. And we sing this song, with it’s emphasized “Oh, oh” leading into the chorus, about a yonder star that shines its light for all who seek Christ: the King, and God, and sacrifice.