The 12 days of Christmas end on 6 Jan, the feast of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation or appearance”, and is associated with the visit of the Magi to Jesus in the manger when they presented Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
We Three Kings tells the story of the Magi’s journey and visit. Its author, John Henry Hopkins Jr., envisioned the story to be narrated by the “kings” and provided directions in an earlier edition: All three kings are to sing stanza 1 together; stanzas 2, 3, and 4 individually; and together again for the final stanza. The congregation would sing the refrain. 1
What exactly does this carol manifest?
Each king had a name: King Gaspar presented gold, Melchior frankincense, and Balthazar myrrh. In his book, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Stookey explains the symbolism of these gifts. Gold was owned by monarchs and was their prerogative. In many ancient cultures, incense was used to indicate the presence of a deity. Myrrh was used as a painkiller (Mark 15:23), an embalming substance (John 19:39), a fragrance (Ps 45:8), and a beauty treatment (Est 2:12) as well as added to oil used for anointing priests (Exod 30:23). 2
The three gifts indicated that the baby receiving the gifts was no ordinary child. They were a clear manifestation of the Magi’s homage to the baby Messiah, the long-awaited Saviour of the world.
In their search for the Messiah, the Magi took a leap of faith. They journeyed, and with confidence followed a star until it brought them to the baby Jesus.
Epiphany invites us to go to Christ. With the same faith that the Magi put on that star of light, let us place our trust in Jesus Christ, the one and perfect light. As we go about our daily lives, the journey may be rough, but with Christ, we can be confident that all will be well.
Altogether we may sing:
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies
We Three Kings of Orient Are (UMH #254)
Words and Music: KINGS OF THE ORIENT John H. Hopkins, Jr. 1820-1891)
1 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 light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.
2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign. [Refrain]
3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high. [Refrain]
4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb. [Refrain]
5 Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies. [Refrain]
1 Raymond F. Glover, ed. The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York, NY: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 128.
2 Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 113.
Judith Laoyan-Mosomos is the Director for Worship and Church Music at the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
Picture by IndianSummer/Bigstock.com