Saturday, January 20, 2018

"We Three Kings"

I want to conclude our sermon series on the hymns and songs of Christmas by discussing a song I’m sure we all know well—our processional hymn today—We Three Kings. This text is not profound poetry. There are other Hymns for Epiphany that are perhaps more eloquently written, but none have left their mark on our culture the way this one has.

Nearly everyone has been to a Christmas pageant where three boys in Burger King crowns and costume jewelry march out to the tune of this beloved hymn. The scene is classic Americana. Indeed, We Three Kings is a classic American hymn. The editor to the United Methodist hymnal, Carlton R. Young, remarks, “Because the wealth of USA Appalachian and other folk carols was yet to be discovered, this carol for almost a century was regarded by hymnal editors as the sole USA contribution to the repertory of English language carols.”

The author and composer was an Episcopal priest named John Henry Hopkins Jr. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pa and earned his education at the University of Vermont and General Theological Seminary, where he later went on to become the first instructor of Church Music.

He also served as the rector of a parish in our diocese, Trinity Church in Plattsburgh New York.

The reason his hymn We Three Kings is such a staple of Christmas pageants is that it was in fact written and composed for that purpose. Hopkins wrote the song for a pageant performed at General Theological Seminary in 1857.  He intended verses 2, 3, and 4 to be sung solo by different voices.

There is much said about the individuals who visited Jesus that is the product of tradition rather than scripture. The names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar are never mentioned in Matthew’s account. We are not even sure that they were three in number. We simply presume they were three based on the three gifts they brought. One early commentator says that there were as many as thirteen!

Hopkins’ hymn reinforces some of these traditional assumptions. For instance he writes of “Three Kings.” Again, the story in Matthews Gospel says nothing about them being kings. He calls them wise men or magi, scholars and astrologers from the East. The tradition of calling them kings arose early as a way of aligning the story with the prophecy of Isaiah,

“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

One has to admit the parallel is striking! We may never know if the magi were literal kings, but the application is clear. The babe in the major is the true king of kings. He has appeared for not only the nation of Israel but for all the nations of the world. Every knee must bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.
Hopkins beautifully interprets what the three gifts these visitors brought say about who Jesus is.

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

The gold that the wise men brought to Jesus speaks of his royalty and majesty. A king is crowned with gold! Gold is a valuable and precious metal. The most precious of all metals. It is synonymous with wealth and power. It contrasts rather ironically with Jesus’ own humble birth in a stable where the only gold was straw!

Gold is also pure and refined, purged on all impurities, which speaks of Jesus’ holiness. Gold is strong and durable. It does not rust or corrode away and thus it speaks of Jesus as “king forever” and “ceasing never,” the son of David who shall have an everlasting dominion.

In verse three the second King sings,

 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high. 
Frankincense is used for perfume and incense. It was often burned during religious rituals in the ancient world including by the Hebrew people. The book of Exodus contains detailed instructions for the use of incense in conjunction with the sacrifices prescribed by the law.  The scent is meant to purify and sanctify the gifts being offered and those who are offering them. The cloud of smoke speaks of the glory and ambiance of heaven. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows:

"Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God's holy ones. From the angel's hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God's people."

This gift offered to the Christ child “owns a deity nigh.” It speaks of his divinity. Jesus is Lord even at his birth and is worthy of our worship and adoration.

In verse four the fourth king sings,

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Myrrh was an aromatic resin commonly used to prepare the dead for burial. This gift is foreshadowing the fact that Jesus will suffer death for our redemption.  Even at this early age, Jesus is marked as the one foretold as the suffering servant. The one who will bear the iniquity of his people.

The gift of this sweet smelling burial resin speaks of the fact that in his death, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Hopkins sums up what all of these gifts say of Christ in his fifth stanza,

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies

Finally there is the refrain of the song which is addressed to the star of Bethlehem. The star which the wise men saw rising in the east. The star they followed to Bethlehem and the infant Christ.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Hopkins is not the only one to address the star in song. Many of the hymns of Epiphany seem to do the same. For instance there is Reginald Heber’s text,

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning, Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid

If all you knew of Christian worship were our Epiphany hymns you might be forgiven for concluding that we were star worshipers!
What is behind all this poetic adoration of the star of Bethlehem? Although these poets address the star, they are doing so only because they see in the star a type of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hopkins describes the star of Bethlehem as shining with “royal beauty bright.” The splendor of this star is the majesty of the king. It leads us to  the one who is the source of its beauty, the light of the world, Jesus Christ. This is why we sing, “guide us to thy perfect light.”

As brightly as the Star Bethlehem shone, its glory pales in comparison to the uncreated light which shone in the face of the Christ Child. His is the light that all wise men seek. His is the light that brings kings to there knees in adoration.
This truth is beautifully articulated by William Dix in another song we will sing this morning,

Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.
In the heavenly country bright,
Need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King!

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