Today we celebrate the Epiphany. Growing up I could never figure out what Oreintar was, or why the Three Kings were from there. Now that I’m better acquainted with the lyrics to “We Three Kings,” written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857, I see some theological treasures.
Many people know that the general significance of the Magi’s gifts: gold signifies Christ’s kingship, frankincense his priestly ministry, and myrrh his death on the Cross. But the order in which the Kings bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matt 2:11) is also significant; it reflects the order of the events of the Passion. Christ enters Jerusalem and is hailed as a king, celebrates Passover as a priest, and then dies and is laid in the tomb. It is as though the Magi give gifts in homage not just to the Christ child, but to Jesus’s whole journey. The Child’s salvific mission, his path to death, and our redemption, is laid out before him. Easter looms expectantly behind the manger.
Here’s a little exposition of the hymn “We Three Kings” juxtaposed with the Holy Week narrative from Matthew.
Verse 2 associates gold with Christ’s kingship.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King for ever,
over us all to reign.
On Palm Sunday, Christ enters the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey and the people greet him with shouts of “Hosannah, Son of David!” (see Matthew 21). The title Son of David alludes to God’s covenantal promise to King David that his heir would rule forever, a story that would have been well-known to the crowds who greeted Christ . And, Matthew mentions Zechariah 9:9 in his description of this scene: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy king is coming to thee, humbly, riding on an ass” (Matt 21:4).
Verse 3 associates frankincense with Christ’s priestly role.
Frankincense to offer have I:
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising,
worship him, God Most High.
Jesus performs multiple priestly actions during the Gospel story of the Passion. He cleanses the temple (Matt 21:12-17), and he institutes the Eucharist at the celebration of the Jewish Passover meal (Matt 26:17-35). Then, in Gethsemane, he offers the perfect prayer to God, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matt 26:39).
Verse 4 associates myrrh, a popular burial spice, with Christ’s death.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Both frankincense and myrrh were popular spices used to prepare a body for burial. Like the scent of lilies might remind us of Easter, or a funeral, a whiff of myrrh would conjure olfactory memories of death. It is Luke, not Matthew, who mentions that the women came to Jesus’s tomb with spices on the morning of the Resurrection (Luke 24:1).
Verse 5, then, mentions Christ’s resurrection. The hymn that began at Christmas ends solidly in Easter.
Glorious now behold him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice;
the earth replies.
I have seen several versions of this last verse, but the above is my favorite rendition, because it paints a picture of heaven initiating the glad cry “He is risen,” and the earth replying in kind. This call and its echo point back to Christmas, to the angels who first praised Christ at his birth, and then called the shepherds to do the same (Luke 2:14).
Heaven’s call and earth’s reply also touches on the heart of the Christmas mystery, the Incarnation, in which the divine nature of the Word takes our human nature and sanctifies it. Christ’s was a union of two full natures, and his humanity responded perfectly to his divine will. In the person of Christ, heaven calls to earth, divinity to humanity, and earth replies, humanity to divinity. This initiates the possibility of our own reply; this teaches us to sing “Gloria,” and then, “Alleluia”.
Note: The feature image is a detail, “The Young King,” from Benozzo Gozzoli’s Chapel of the Magi in Florence, Italy. Painted between 1459 and 1463, the fresco depicts members of the Medici family as well as Greek clergy who visited for the council of Ferrara-Florence some twenty years earlier.