Today: Monday, December 09, 2019

Favourite carols: We Three Kings    (12/19/2010)


“We Three Kings of Orient Are” is my favourite Christmas carol. There, I’ve said it. Perhaps I’m a little defensive because I so rarely hear it sung, and rarely get the chance to sing it myself.

Yet I’ve just discovered, courtesy of Wikipedia, that this 1863 carol has been recorded by the most surprising people—including Blondie, Tori Amos and The Jonas Brothers. Who’d have thought? Perhaps it appeals because it’s relatively unusual, thanks to verses in a minor key and a chorus in a major key.

For me the appeal stretches back to when I was five. I’d just started school and I wanted to be a Christian. I remember very clearly standing in front of the stage in the assembly hall of my school, in Zambia, and listening to some other children sing ‘We Three Kings’. I’d never heard it before and was enchanted by both the melody and this mysterious ‘orient’.

The orient! Goodness, how far had these men come. I imagined them on camels, wonderfully dressed, bringing terribly expensive presents… the picture in my mind was like one done in lurid colours on black velvet—astonishingly vivid!.

As with many great songs, we could pick holes in it. After all, the Bible makes no reference at all to kings; instead, it calls them magi. Neither does the Bible say there were three of them: this has probably been interpreted from the fact that they brought three gifts to the infant Jesus. Thirdly, the song claims they travelled over ‘moor and mountain’, and while there were certainly mountains to the east of Bethlehem, moors would have been hard to find.

And it’s quite likely that the magi were sorcerers or magicians rather than wise men. 2,000 years ago the idea of a magician incorporated the ability to read the stars; indeed, the root of the word was used for followers of Zoroaster, which was the ability to read the stars and interpret what they meant. The word also has its roots in the idea of charlatan or trickster.

So why would God – whose word specifically instructs believers not to practice this kind of future-telling, and who despises trickery — bring people like the magi to see his baby son? Well, we can’t know for sure. But God likes to turn things upside down and challenge our preconceptions. Why was the Messiah born to a virgin, from a poor family, in a stable? Why did Jesus make a bee-line for lepers, prostitutes and crooked tax-collectors? Why did he challenge the religious authorities and practices of the day?

Well, God is a god of surprises. God loves and welcomes everyone, even the soothsayer and the con-man. He wants every single one of us to come to Jesus, whoever and whatever we are – and the magi, those early visitors, certainly came, and then worshipped him.

How did they understand that this otherwise undistinguished child was to be worshipped? We can only imagine how the Holy Spirit must have moved them, but they got the message, the Message that’s for everyone. It was enough for them to disobey the king and leave the country quietly. Gazing on the face of the child who was also God, they knew they had to take a big risk. They knew he was worth it!

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