06 January 2010

We three kings of orient are

The Adoration of the Magi ... by Botticelli

Patrick Comerford

Three events in the life of Christ are associated with the Feast of the Epiphany: the Visit of the Magi; Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan; and the Wedding at Cana. However, most people today [6 January] are probably thinking of the first of those Epiphany moments – the Visit of the Magi, often referred to as the Three Wise Men, or the Three Kings, bearing gifts to the Christ Child after his birth.

The Magi, as the “Three Kings” or “Three Wise Men,” are regular figures in traditional nativity stories and in Christmas and Epiphany celebrations. But the visit of the Magi is recalled in one Gospel alone, in Matthew 2:1-12:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

From priests to kings

Although Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 60: 3 and Psalm 72 speak of gifts being given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings. Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.

The word magi comes from the plural of the Greek magos (μαγος, plural μαγοι), which in turn comes from the Old Persian maguŝ. These magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).

In Western tradition, the magi of the Epiphany have been named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These names may come from an early sixth century Greek manuscript in Alexandria, although other authorities say the names are first found in an eighth century Irish manuscript. However, Syrian Orthodox tradition names the three magi as Larvanad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdad, while Ethiopian names them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, and the Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.

There are many traditions about what happened to the Three Wise Men afterwards. One story says they were baptised by Saint Thomas on his way to India. Another says their bodies were found by the Empress Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, and brought to the great church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. From there they were moved to Milan, and eventually enshrined in Cologne Cathedral.

In our cribs, they are often portrayed as European, African and Asian, with the European giving gold and the other two giving myrrh and frankincense. There are many theories about the meaning and symbolism of these gifts. Gold is fairly obviously explained, but frankincense and myrrh are more obscure. Myrrh was commonly used for anointing, frankincense was a perfume, and gold is valuable. But the gifts had a spiritual meaning too: gold symbolises kingship on earth, frankincense is a symbol of priesthood, while myrrh is an embalming oil that symbolises death. Or gold represents virtue, frankincense represents prayer, and myrrh represents suffering.

In the Patristic tradition, Saint John Chrysostom of Constantinople suggested that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God. He contrasted them with the traditional Temple offerings of sheep and calves, and deduced that the Magi worshiped the new-born Christ Child as God.

One story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Christ. Another tale says it was entrusted to Judas and then misappropriated by him. But in the Monastery of Saint Paul (Αγίου Παύλου) on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.

The popular Epiphany carol

The allocation and significance of each of the gifts has been embedded in many minds by the most popular hymn or carol associated with Epiphany, We three kings of orient are (Hymn 201, Irish Church Hymnal). This song was written in 1857 by the Revd John Henry Hopkins jr (1820-1891), an Episcopalian priest and the son of a well-known Episcopalian bishop.

Hopkins was born in Pittsburgh on 28 October 182. After graduating from the University of Vermont, he worked for a while as journalist before studying theology at the General Theological Seminary in New York, and was ordained deacon in 1850. He was the seminary’s first music teacher (1855-1857), and while he was there he composed several hymns. He also founded the Church Journal in February 1853, and remained its editor and proprietor until May 1868.

Hopkins wrote the words and music for We three kings for a Christmas pageant for his nephews and nieces, probably in 1857 … although it was not published in Carols, Hymns and Songs until 1863, and the Irish Church Hymnal dates it from 1865. His other compositions include the music for I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, a popular children’s hymn.

He took an active role in the formation of the diocese of Pittsburgh in 1865, and the Dioceses of Albany and Long Island in 1868. In between, he accompanied his father to the first Lambeth Conference in London in 1867.

He was ordained priest in 1872, and was Rector of Trinity Church, Plattsburgh, New York (1872-1876) and Christ Church, Williamsport (1876-1891). He received the degree DD from Racine College in 1873, and delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885.

Hopkins never married, and died in Hudson, New York, in 1891. One of his last publications was his edition of The Great Hymns of the Church (1887) by Bishop John Freeman Young (1820-1885)of Florida, who is best-remembered for his translation of Silent Night. I suppose it was inevitable during this week in Orlando that I should have found some connections between the life of the Episcopal Church here and some ofv our most popular Christmas carols. I was more surprised to come across the strong Irish family background of Hopkins.

An Irish-born bishop

Bishop John Henry Hopkins ... the hymn-writer’s father was born in Dublin

Hopkins may have had his first inklings for writing We three kings in his childhood, for one of his brothers was named Caspar. What is less well-known is that his father was a bishop who was born in Dublin and baptised in the Church of Ireland.

The hymn-writer’s father, John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), was the first Episcopal Bishop of Vermont and the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

John Henry Hopkins was born in Dublin on 30 January 1792, but emigrated with his parents to Philadelphia in 1800. His early education was provided by his mother, who taught him to read Shakespeare before the age of nine.

After a failed business venture with James O’Hara in the growing industry of iron production outside Pittsburgh, Hopkins was declared bankrupt in 1817. He then studied law, was called to the bar and by the early 1820s was the leading lawyer in Pittsburgh. His son the hymn-writer was born during this period, and at the same time Hopkins was the organist at Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, often playing original compositions.

In 1823, while away on business, and while he was still a layman, the vestry of Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, elected him as their rector. After only two months, he was ordained deacon on 23 December 1823 and priest five months later in 1824.

Hopkins had also qualified as an architect and introduced Gothic architecture to the Episcopal Church. He high church in his theology, read the works of the Church Fathers in the original Greek and Latin, and was a compassionate and faithful priest. In 1827, he was elected an assistant bishop of Pennsylvania, but declined because his vote would have decided the election in his favour. He told his son that had he voted for himself he would have lived out his days wondering whether it was his will or God’s will that he should be a bishop.

He moved to a parish in Boston in 1831, and in 1832 he was elected the first Bishop of Vermont. While he was bishop he was also rector of Saint Paul’s, Burlington. His buildings included the beautiful Gothic Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, but this was destroyed by fire in 1972.

He was the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1865 to 1868 and played a leading role both in healing the schism in the Episcopal Church after the American Civil War. Accompanied by his son the hymn-writer, he took an active role in the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 – he had first suggested such a conference as early as 1851.

In this modern icon by Brother Robert Lenz, OFM, Bishop Hopkins is shown holding Trinity Church, Rutland, of which he was both the architect and the Rector. The Greek text around him reads: “Blessed John Henry.”

We three kings of Orient are (Irish Church Hymnal 201):

The kings:
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 night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light!

First king:
Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
gold I bring to crown him again –
king forever, ceasing never
over us all to reign.

Second king:
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising gladly raising,
worship him, God Most High:

Third king:
Myrrh is mine; Its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb:

The kings:
Glorious now, behold him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice!
Heaven sings alleluia: alle-
luia the earth replies.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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