Poem of the Week

2015 Years Ago Today, Three Kings Visit Herod

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. delivers an epiphany in a nutshell.

Wikimedia Commons

We Three Kings

John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

(Refrain) 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.

(Refrain)

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.

(Refrain)

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

(Refrain)

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Peals through the earth and skies.

***

January 6 ends the holiday season in Western Christianity with the Feast of the Epiphany. The Greek word "epiphany" means “manifestation” – here, a divine revelation to humanity. On that date 2015 years ago, three foreign dignitaries, representing mankind, reportedly visited the little town of Bethlehem.

Written for a family Christmas pageant by American clergyman John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), this commemoration of the visit became a part of the repertoire for compulsory seasonal singing in public schools in the United States. Whenever the words “Jesus” or Christ” came up, we Jewish kids would either seal our lips or fudge, as in: “The little lord Mumble lay down his sweet head.” In this song, the names we held ineffable don’t appear, and we’d belt it out unhindered by any clue to the story.

According to Chapter 2 of the Book of Matthew, an unspecified number of wise men (the New Testament Greek word is magoi) – or Zoroastrian priests, or kings -- came from the unspecified east to King Herod in Jerusalem, asking for the whereabouts of the newborn king of the Jews whose star they had seen. Herod dispatched them to Bethlehem to spy on the upstart.

They presented the infant three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, so in later centuries it was assumed that there were three visitors, each bearing one gift. The Gospel says they didn’t rat to the king in Jerusalem, but “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”

Eventually they acquired names: In the order of their lines in the song, Melchior of Arabia is said to have given the gold symbolizing royalty, Balthazar of Ethiopia the frankincense symbolizing high priesthood and Caspar of Tarsus the myrrh used in medicine and embalming, symbolizing resurrection and eternal life.

Traditional iconography shows men of all ages and races worshipping Jesus: Melchior is elderly and white, or a son of Japhet, Kaspar is young and Semitic, a son of Shem, and Balthazar is middle-aged and black, or a son of Ham.

In Italy, a kindly crone called Befana gives gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany and in the Eastern churches, Epiphany (for some, on a different date) marks both the visit and the baptism of Jesus.

*Bonus: In the Great Smokies, Dolly Parton sings “We Three Kings”