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.
By far the best known of the true Epiphany carols, it was written in the mid-19th-century. Often you can hear this full carol sung with soloists to represent the three “kings,” who were so named not because of the gospel of Matthew, but based on interpretations of certain Hebrew Bible passages.
Something we usually overlook in telling our tale is that in the gospel it states that Wise Men came from the East. It does not designate how many. There could have been tens or hundreds of Magi who came.
The essential detail of the story is not the number of people, but the gifts that they bring. These learned ones offer presents to the Christ-child that tell us everything about who he is. The beauty of this hymn is that it explains this significance so that all of us might heed the deeper meaning of our bedtime story.
The first gift that is offered is gold. Gold is used by royalty the world over. It is a precious metal, held by only a select group. And this gold is brought to “crown” the child.
The second gift is frankincense. To our modern ears, the second half of that word is more familiar – especially since the mid-90s when incense burners became all the rage. Traditionally, incense or frankincense has been used in worship to glorify God. This present is therefore intended to mark the child as God most high.
The final gift is myrrh. With this present, our story takes a darker turn. Already in the child’s birth narrative, we see that he is marked for death. Yes, Christ willingly accepts this purpose (and yes, Christ came for more than simply his death), however, the gospel-writers intend for us to pay attention to the end, even at the beginning of the story.
It is a beautiful thing when music helps us to accurately interpret the stories of scripture. We grow up singing carols like this one and they help us to learn the narratives even before we understand their meaning. And like scripture, these hymns all have multiple levels of purpose.
So may we, like the learned sages, come to the Christ-child to worship and leave to serve the Christ-child in all the world around us. And, may we join the generations of those who have shared these stories as we sing the final verse: Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice; Alleluia! Alleluia! sounds through the earth and skies. O star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.