We three kings of Orient are - January
In January we have the season of Epiphany. The Greek word from which we obtain the noun ‘Epiphany’ means ‘ a moment of sudden and great realization’ — for us the manifestation of the Son of God to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (wise men). The festival is officially held on January 6th in the western Christian church to honour the coming of the Magi to visit the infant Jesus, but can be held on the nearest Sunday. The story is told in Matthew 2 verses 1-12. There could well have been more than 3 Magi, but three gifts are recorded as being presented to Jesus; Gold, which would be for a king, Frankincense as incense in worshipping God and Myrrh which would represent suffering and sacrifice. These Magi would have come from the Babylonian area and would have been very knowledgeable about astronomy . They were able to follow the leading of a star to the Bethlehem area. Bethlehem is about 6 miles south of Jerusalem and understandably the magi first went to Herod's palace in Jerusalem seeking Jesus, the one they knew to have been born king of the Jews. This event could well have taken place up to 2 years after Jesus' birth as we are told that the visit took place in a house, Jesus' family apparently having moved on from the stable where He was born. Although Herod told the magi that he wished to visit Jesus too, they were warned by God in a dream not to return to Jerusalem so avoided the city on their way back to their own country . Frustrated in his efforts to find Jesus, Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of 2 in the area, so eliminating any threat to his reign.
The feast of the Epiphany is referred to in Christian writings as early as AD 361 . There are different Christian customs around the world e.g. Armenians celebrate January 6th as the only commemoration of the Nativity ; in Finland the day focuses on missionary work and there is a national holiday with star shaped gingerbread cookies being enjoyed; In Argentina and Uruguay the 6th is called the ‘ Day of Kings’, the previous night is the ‘Night of Kings’ and children leave shoes by the front door along with grass and water for the camels, the next morning on the 6th they receive a present a special cake is eaten and all the Christmas decorations are put away. Other commemorations on the day include the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan and Jesus' first miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana.
Perhaps one of the most famous carols associated with Epiphany is ‘We Three-Kings of Orient are’.
We three kings of Orient are,
bearing gifts we travel afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star :
0 star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to the perfect light
The words were written by the Revd. John Henry Hopkins Jnr. (1820 - 1891). He was an American Episcopal Rector in Williamsport, Pennsylvania USA. He originally trained as a journalist and then a lawyer. He studied theology in New York and as well as being a minister was the first music teacher at the General Theological Seminary. In 1857, the fifth and final year he taught at the college, he wrote ‘We Three King’ for a Christmas pageant there. By both being the author of the lyrics and composing the music he was one of the few gifted carol /hymn writers we know. After the pageant the carol continued to be sung by his family and friends and was then published for the public in 1862. It was the first carol to come from the USA to achieve widespread popularity.
The carol was originally written to be sung by 3 male voices who sing together for the first and last verses and who each have a verse to sing which describes a gift brought to the infant Jesus. The refrain dividing each verse and finishing the carol praises the beauty of the star of Bethlehem and can be sung by a congregation or choir. The tune has the unusual basis of being middle Eastern in nature but with a lilt that we associate with many other familiar carols, At Christ Church we aim to sing ‘We Three Kings’ on one of the Sundays near the 6th January.
Once Epiphany is over we move on in the church year towards Lent and then Easter.