Epiphany – a Little Context
Epiphany, is an even more ancient Christian celebration than Christmas, which originally focused on the nativity, God’s incarnation (God made flesh) in the birth of Jesus Christ and Christ’s baptism. Today, it commemorates the visiting of the Christ Child by the Magi (Wise Men) with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Epiphany Day is always on January 6, and marks the end of the Christmas season or Christmastide. In the Western churches, Epiphany Day has marked the observance of the arrival of the wise men. In the earliest Christian traditions, maintained by the Eastern churches, the day began a period that celebrated the incarnation and baptism of Christ.
We will observe Epiphany on Epiphany Sunday, January 6th. The primary passage of Scripture concerning the visit of the Wise Men (“Magi”) is Matthew 2:1-12 and is the passage that inspired the hymn “We Three Kings”.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
“We Three Kings”
John H. Hopkins Jr. – UMH #254
Though Scripture does not tell us exactly how many wise men journeyed to worship Jesus, this hymn, which focuses on the three gifts Scripture does mention, may be the primary reason for the tradition of three wise men.
The author and composer, John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), was an Episcopal Church musician and minister. Following his ordination in 1872, Hopkins served as rector of two parishes: Trinity Church in Plattsburg, New York (1872-1876) and Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (1876-1887). Hopkins wrote the carol around 1857, based on the narrative of the journey of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12.
“We Three Kings” was first published in the author’s Carols, Hymns, and Songs (1863). United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young makes the following observation: “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.”
“We Three Kings” has many features associated with Christmas carols including a refrain, a narrative-ballad style, and a lilting tune in triple meter. With simple naïveté, “We Three Kings” outlines its narrative in a manner with which children might identify. Though in triple rhythm, this is not a dancing tune like many of the more traditional carols, such as “Good Christian friends, rejoice.” “We Three Kings” is usually performed in a more plodding three, giving the feel of the long journey of the magi.
While the actual number of wise men is not important, the imagery of the star is central to the Epiphany season and the narrative. The refrain focuses on the star and invites us to join the magi in following its light—“guide us to thy perfect light.”
[ Based on articles from UMC Discipleship Ministries ]