We three kings of orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar Field and fountain, moor and mountain Following yonder star.O Star of wonder, star of night Star with royal beauty bright Westward leading, still proceeding Guide us to thy Perfect Light.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain Gold I bring to crown him again King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. O Star of wonder……
Frankincense to offer have I Incense owns a Deity nigh Prayer and praising, all men raising Worship Him, God most high. O Star of wonder……
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. O Star of wonder…….
Glorious now behold Him arise King and God and Sacrifice Alleluia, Alleluia Earth to heav’n replies O Star of wonder…..
The Rev’d John Henry Hopkins wrote this in 1857 as a Christmas surprise for nieces and nephews. You can hear it here.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The story and the carol were both written for a specific reason. John Hopkins wrote ‘We three Kings’ for a family pageant. Matthew wrote his gospel to a church that was breaking from the Jewish community of which it had once been a part and was now declaring its new mission to the Gentile world. The story about the ‘wise men from the East’ who ‘knelt down and paid [the baby] homage’, reflects the challenge the Church was experiencing in receiving Gentile worshippers, whilst at the same time retaining the rich heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures in the many quotations from them. This story, around which so many myths – the carol being one of them – are woven, presents The Way as a radical departure from old ways.
The beauty of the pageantry in both story and song though, hides the brokenness of the world this baby came to save. We rarely hear in church the terrifying continuation of the narrative that the ‘(un)wise men’ set in motion – the slaughter of all baby boys so that the one who was such a threat could be eliminated. It reminds me not to wrap up the Christmas story in gold paper and scented candles but remember that whilst our children may dress in velvet robes and paper crowns to enact weird and wonderful versions of the nativity, there are many children who, like Jesus, are at great risk and need the wisdom and gifts of strangers. Can we be the wise visitors of today?
Guiding Light, give us the hope that invites us to journey, however difficult and dark the road. Guiding Light, give us the wisdom to know the right questions when we want to find The Way. Guiding Light, give us both strength and vulnerability so that our hearts and minds are open to the unexpected. Guiding Light, give us generous hearts to offer gifts for life and the grace to receive forgiveness when we go wrong. Guiding Light, give us wisdom. Bring us to the Light of life. Amen
The Rev’d Lis Mullen is a retired minister and member of Kendal URC