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HYMN 291 We Three King of Orient Are

Matthew 2:1-12

Text and tune: John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891)

The Three Wisemen Mosaics from the Santa Maria Maggiore church in Rome, 6th century

1. We Three Kings of Orient are, Bearing gifts we traverse afar, Field and fountain, Moor and mountain, Following yonder Star.

R/ O Star of Wonder, Star of Night, Star with Royal Beauty bright, Westward leading, Still proceeding, Guide us to Thy perfect Light.

Gaspard (Caspar)

2. Born a King on Bethlehem plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, Ceasing never Over us all to reign. R/O Star….


3. Frankincense to offer have I, Incense owns a Deity nigh: Prayer and praising All men raising, Worship Him God on High. R/O Star…


4. Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom--; Sorrowing, sighing, Bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. R/O Star…

5. Glorious now behold Him arise, King, and God, and Sacrifice; Heav’n sings

Hallelujah: Hallelujah the earth replies. R/O Star…

6. We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar Field and fountain,

Moor and mountain Following yonder star:

R/O Star...

MEDITATION It should not be surprising that some of our most popular Christmas hymns were written for the pageants that go with Christmas, especially the children’s pageants. Who doesn’t love watching a little Mary with a doll sitting by a manger, and shepherds in bathrobes with canes coming to worship the baby, as wisemen in crowns bearing gifts approach. Of course, composers and hymn writers have wanted songs to be sung as these pageants proceed. Martin Luther’s "From heaven above" was used in the home to act out the Christmas story; Hans Adolph Brorson’s "Thy Little Ones Dear Lord are We" was for a church Christmas program; as was this one. The three kings could sing the first stanza and then each wiseman would sing, telling the story of his gift.

The story of the three kings has been the subject of interpretations that, although they are not biblical, are theologically interesting.

Matthew tells us of the wisemen seeing the star, following it and ending up in Jerusalem, where they consulted Herod and his scribes, and then finding the baby in Bethlehem, and returning home. We don’t have much more. But the tradition has enjoyed embellishing it. It starts with the gifts the wisemen bring—gold, frankincense and myrrh. As the wisemen sing in the carol, they explain the meaning of their gifts. Gold for a king, frankincense, used in sacrifices, is for a God who in this case will be the sacrifice, and myrrh for a death. Although the biblical scholars may not agree with this, it makes all kinds of sense. In the Middle Ages everything had double, triple or quadruple meanings. Gertrude Stein mocked that symbolism with her sentence, a rose is a rose is a rose. In doing so, she flattened out worlds of meaning.

Adoration of the Magi Bartolome Esteban Murillo 1660

Each king comes from a part of the world where their gifts are easily found. Balthazaar, who brought myrrh, was from Africa, something the Venerable Bede wrote about around 500 AD. That he was African appears in Northern European paintings of the scene, from 1200 and continued. There is some confusion about who is who--the sources vary--but most say Caspar is the King of Sheba. He brings frankincense. Melchoir is the oldest, with white hair and beard. He is said to have brought the gold from Arabia.The interpreters made much of the fact that all the known continents were represented by the kings. And their ages also meant that all people of every age were included among those seeking to find the Lord and worshiping at his feet.

Epiphany, or Adoration of the Magi, Hans Baldung 1507

The appearance of the Star to people who did not know the ancient prophecies of Israel meant to the church that Jesus drew all people to him. At his last appearance, he sent his disciples to all the world in his Great Commission in Matthew 28, almost as a conclusion to the Wisemen story.

When I was a kid, during Epiphany, in January, we had mission festivals because Epiphany was mission emphasis time. The meetings usually featured missionaries from around the world who were on their furlough visiting their sponsoring congregations to tell them about their work. Once, when the temperature sank to below minus 30 degrees for a week, we had two missionaries staying with us for such a festival which was astonishingly well attended despite the cold. That year my uncle, Morris Werdal, a missionary to Japan who had been born to missionaries in China, and Lenorah Erickson, who fled China with the coming of Mao and had gone to Taiwan were with us. It gave us immediate acquaintance with people around the world and made us aware that we were sisters and brothers in Christ with many we had never met but with whom we were united.

It made the world a much less alien place, all told. We were one in Christ. We can see it in the paintings as the old King Melchior kneels down before the baby Jesus and worships him along with the other kings. I especially like the ones where Jesus is blessing the wisemen with his little hand. (See yesterday's picture.) At the foot of Jesus, there are no outsiders, no distinctions. No separations. He is king over all and we are his grateful, joyful, friends.


For some Epiphany fun tomorrow make some King's Cake, the specialty for the day. There are recipes from many lands that celebrate Epiphany. Here is a history and some recipes!



HYMN INFO This most famous carol was written by the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport PA for a Christmas pageant in the New York in 1857. The first music instructor at Union Seminary, he published this in 1863 in a book Carols, Hymns, and Songs. It was the first American carol to become popular throughout the English-speaking world.

LINKS King College Choir at their Christmas Eve service 2010

Angel City Chorale

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