One commentator, Paul Westermeyer, remarks that this song “has the aura of coming anonymously out of the distant past.” Certainly many of us cannot recall the first time we heard it. But this wondrous hymn did have a beginning. It was written in 1857 by an Episcopal deacon, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who taught church music at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
Hopkins wrote the music as well as the words. And if you think it about for a moment, you may agree with me that “We three kings” represents a remarkable marriage of text and tune.
The hymn produced by Hopkins is a dramatization of today’s gospel. It tells how the kings followed that “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright” which led them to the new king ‘Born on Bethlehem’s plain.”
The gospel does not indicate how many kings traveled to Bethlehem, or even that they were kings. Their royalty is based on a psalm text associated with this feast. Their number is assumed on the basis of their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A stanza of the hymn is devoted to each king, the gift he carries with him, and what that gift reveals about Christ, not the infant only, but also the man.
When sung in unison by a congregation, this hymn puts us unmistakably as participants in the sacred story. It does not begin “Those three kings,” but “We three kings.” You and I find ourselves on the road to Bethlehem, dressed in royal attire, and our hands hold presents for the new monarch whose birth is foretold in the night sky. It is we kings who carry to the stable our gold and frankincense and myrrh. This gospel story does not tell simply what happened once, but it tells what happens, or can happen, in our lives here and now.
Perhaps no bright star beams above, portent of some tremendous event; perhaps we need not muddy our boots by long travel across “field and fountain, moor and mountain”; yet still, ours is a royal dignity, we are created in God’s image, and we can enjoy no rest until we look upon the King of glory face to face.
What gifts do we royal ones have for this Christ? Gold and frankincense and myrrh.
• Gold—fit for a king.
• Frankincense—whose fragrance rises to God.
• Myrrh—a resin used to embalm the dead.
These are the gifts we offer, not to the infant Christ only, but to the adult Christ as well; not just to the baby born at Bethlehem, but to the Risen One who reigns among us.
We give Christ our gold when we realize that our lives are not our own private possessions made secure him against him. We give Christ our gold when we know we are not here to pursue our own pleasures, our own objectives, or even what we see to be our duty, but that we are here to do what Christ wants us to do, and that over against this, all outward circumstances, all our accepted standards are as nothing.
But we have trouble giving him our gold! We have trouble even seeing that this is what we ought to do. Instead, we seek a self-fulfillment outside of him–whether through achievements, or possessions, or some quick fix. We seek self-fulfillment outside of him, and the self that is fulfilled is but a shadow of what we are meant to be. We need not clutch our treasures to ourselves. Let us give him our gold!
We give Christ frankincense when we make our lives a prayer offered in response to him. We give Christ frankincense when we try to pray even as we breathe–in season and out of season, in good times and bad. This incense we offer through prayer may be only a few poor granules, yet it is an offering that pleases the Lord of heaven and earth.
But we have trouble giving him our frankincense! We have trouble even seeing that this is what we ought to do. The embers meant to ignite our incense have grown cold, grown dark. These embers–simplicity and silence, a willingness to listen, a readiness to wait–are often absent from our lives. Yet we need not be empty of prayer. The flames can rise again, hot and joyous, and the smoke pour forth. Let us give Christ our frankincense!
We give Christ myrrh when we join him in his sufferings for the life of the world. We give Christ myrrh when we do not suffer hopelessly, but offer up our pain in union with his. The choice is not ours whether to suffer, but how we will suffer; whether ours will be meaningless pain, driving us down to hell, or pain that brings new life, that lifts us up to heaven.
But we have trouble giving Christ myrrh! We have trouble even seeing that this is what we ought to do. We want protection from pain rather than for Christ to conquer it. We would rather deny death and avoid life than have Christ trample death and bestow life. Do we dare allow our hearts to go wild? His stay in the tomb is only for a time. Christ’s resurrection contains the promise of our own. Let us give him our myrrh!
We are royal persons, made in God’s image, kings from the Orient, bearing gifts to Christ of gold and frankincense and myrrh. These gifts reveal him as lord of our lives, as God most high, as death’s conqueror. These gifts reveal us as people obedient to Christ, who pray even as they breathe, who die with Christ and are raised with him.
These gifts also reveal the perennial Christian path, the way we take with Christ from his birth to his death, from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross, from the stable’s darkness to the tomb’s darkness, from the light of a midnight star to the light of resurrection morning,
Gold and frankincense and myrrh, but myrrh is not the final gift. The final gift is one given to us: this resurrection with Christ, our new life in him, a joy past all telling.
“Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice; heaven sings alleluia: alleluia the earth replies.”
Copyright for this sermon 2009, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.
Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).