We Three Kings — Carols of Epiphany
Matthew 2.1–2, 11
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Have you ever been to a birthday party where guests received gifts but not the one having the birthday?
January 6 on the Christian calendar is known as Epiphany, the celebration of the gifts and journey of the Magi.
“We Three Kings” was the first widely popular carol written in America. Composed in 1857 by Episcopal minister and church music instructor at General Theological Seminary in New York, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., the song was created for a Nativity pageant at the seminary.
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
For dramatic purposes, Hopkins assigned a gift and a verse to three Magi, traditionally named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Note that Matthew’s account mentions three gifts, not three men. In some Christian traditions, they are twelve in number.
Furthermore, there is no indication in Matthew that they were kings. The word magi refers to astrologers, thus their interest in following a star. Not royalty, but most certainly foreigners, these Magi were likely familiar with Hebrew prophecies.
Despite these slight missteps the carol makes, Hopkins does a fine job describing the symbolism of the gifts.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again
Gold is the most frequently mentioned valuable metal in scripture, used as currency but also for making jewelry, ornaments, and utensils for royalty. This gift is fit for a king.
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Frankincense, derived from Boswellia tree resin, produces a sweet odor when burned and was part of the incense allowed on the altar. This gift is fit for worship.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Myrrh, sap from a small tree in Arabia, was used as a perfume and to stifle the smell of a dead body before burial. This gift is fit for death.
As astrologers, not royalty, the gifts came at a significant financial cost to the Magi. Traveling from as far away as Persia, a two-year journey, required time and energy. These gifts were sacrificial, intended for worship.
However, what do we do at Christmas time? We give gifts to everyone but the guest of honor himself.
What if this year you begin a new tradition? What if your new year “resolutions” were not simply ways to better yourself or be more successful, but instead were gifts from you to Jesus?
What present would you give Jesus? More time in prayer or Bible study? Kicking a habit that is holding back your spiritual growth? Focusing attention less on yourself and more on those around you?
If you give Jesus a gift this year, what will it be? Following the example of the Magi, let it be sacrificial and intended for worship.
Listen: We Three Kings by Tenth Avenue North and Britt Nicole
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org