It often baffles me that, despite Christmas creeping earlier every year, most people seem to just celebrate the first day of Christmas, Dec. 25, and then stop. Within the church, Christmas begins on Dec. 25 and continues for 12 days (thus the song) until Jan. 5.
Jan. 6 is Epiphany, the day we celebrate the arrival of the three magi (or wise men or kings) to Bethlehem and the delivery of their gifts to Jesus. Growing up, I only remember hearing the first verse and refrain of John Hopkin’s carol about the event, but it is worth taking some time to remember the remaining verses, which describe the meaning of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The first verse, “We three kings of Orient are; / Bearing gifts, we traverse afar, / Field and fountain, / Moor and mountain, / Following yonder star” and the refrain, “O star of wonder, star of night, / Star with royal beauty bright, / Westward leading, still proceeding, / Guide us to thy perfect Light,” introduce the characters and setting, and are likely familiar to most of you and may also be all you know of the song. Each of the next three verses elaborates on one of the three gifts before the fifth and final verse brings them back together.
The second verse, “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, / Gold I bring to crown him again; / King forever, / Ceasing never / Over us all to reign,” focuses on the gift of gold. Gold is not just wealth but is also the material used to make royal crowns, which symbolizes Jesus’ role as King of Kings.
The third verse, “Frankincense to offer have I; / Incense owns a Deity nigh; / Prayer and praising / Gladly raising, / Worshiping God on high,” brings forward frankincense. Frankincense, a key ingredient in the incense burned in the temple in Jerusalem, points to Jesus’ priestly role and divinity.
I will always remember the first time I heard the fourth verse sung by a bass soloist: “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorr’wing, sighing, / Bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” This verse is about the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was an embalming agent used to preserve bodies after death, and so foreshadows Jesus’ death.
The final verse, “Glorious now behold him arise, / King and God and Sacrifice: / Alleluia, Alleluia! / Sounds through the earth and skies.” If the fourth verse directs our attention to Good Friday and Jesus’ death, the fifth verse brings us through to Easter and the Resurrection, reminding us just why we still remember Jesus’ long-ago birth and why we look forward with hope and expectation to Christ’s eventual return.
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