Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel VI: We Three Kings

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

We're back to the 19th century with this one, but we're staying on U.S. soil.  Originally written for a Christmas pageant in New York City, this song has been covered time and again by popular artists, from the Beach Boys to the Barenaked Ladies (I actually really like their version) to BlondieJose Feliciano even recorded a version.  However, as with many other carols, the pop versions (and sometimes even the church versions) are usually somewhat truncated.

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.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.
I never liked this song as a kid.  It seemed too goofy.  Granted, I was only really hearing the first verse and the chorus, and maybe the second or third verse on occasion.  It seemed to be more about the kings than about the King.  It seemed like a song little kids would like--kings and traveling . . . lots of action.  It seemed to miss the central story.

As I heard more of the lyrics, however (and heard some better arrangements of the piece), my opinion changed.  I realized that this is an incredibly rich hymn.  Yes, I still think the first verse and chorus are a bit of a throw away--I don't really care about them, and I don't think they matter much to the overall song, other than to let you know the identity of the narrators.

But from there, it gets really, really good.  The first 'wise man' bring gold, as we know (Matthew 2:11), and notes that this is an appropriate gift for a king.  The king.  And not just any king--a king who has been crowned before ('to crown Him again).  That is, Christ reigned with God in heaven before the incarnation.  And His kingdom is eternal--'king forever, ceasing never'.  (See Luke 1:32-33 and Revelation 11:15)  And this king is, in fact, the king over all other kings. (See Revelation 19:16)  He reigns 'over us all', including all rulers and powers and authorities. (See Colossians 1:16; I Peter 3:22)  Christ is King.

The second gift is frankincense.  Frankincense was a key ingredient in the incense used in the temple--and only in the temple.  Anyone who used it for any other purpose was cut off from Israel.  (See Exodus 30:34-38)  The 'wise men' may not have been Jewish, but the gift of frankincense would, to a Jew, likely signal the involvement of deity.  This holy incense was for God alone, and only priests could use it.  (Priests like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who was burning incense in the temple when the angel appeared to him and prophesied John's birth. (See Luke 1)) The second narrator is right, then, to note that his gift 'owns a deity nigh'--a deity so nigh as to be with us, in Emmanuel.  (See Matthew 1:23)  Incense was involved in the praising of God in His temple, and it was given to Jesus.  Christ is God. 

And now for my favorite verse.  The third gift is myrrh. Near as I can figure, myrrh had a variety of uses in scripture.  It was an ingredient in holy anointing oil to be used in the temple (Exodus 30:22-33) and was used as a perfume (Esther 2:12; Psalm 45:8; Song of Songs 3:6), hence the 'bitter perfume' referenced in the verse.  This bitterness is both literal and figurative, as myrrh is also strongly connected with death--it has analgesic properties, and it was used to drug wine offered to those being crucified.  This mixture was offered to Jesus, and he refused it.  (Mark 15:22-24)  Thus myrrh is a reminder of Christ on the cross 'sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying'.  Then, after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus embalmed him with a mixture of myrrh and aloes (John 19:38-40) before he was 'sealed in a stone cold tomb'.  (Matthew 27:66) The problem of sin is not specifically addressed, but the song dwells somberly on Christ's death for our sake.  Christ is our Sacrifice.

The final verse does not leave us in that stone cold tomb, but invites us to behold the risen lamb.  (Mark 16:4-7).  We are reminded that in Christ we see 'King and God and sacrifice'.  This is, in a way, a re-phrasing of Christ as prophet, priest, and king--Christ is a prophet who opens up communication with God, Christ offers the final sacrifice on our behalf, and Christ is King over all.  The song ends with praises being sung to the risen Christ throughout 'the earth and skies.'  (See Revelation 5:11-14)

Far from being a narrative song about tertiary characters in the nativity (like 'Little Drummer Boy' or 'The Friendly Beasts'), this song is first and foremost about Christ and the gospel.  I just wish we didn't have to close by singing that empty chorus again.

To read the next entry in the series, 'Caroling the Gospel VII: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming', click here.

No comments: