Murillo - We Three Kings
The Adoration of the Magi, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1655-1600

We Three Kings

“We Three Kings of Orient Are . . .”  Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know this song? It’s easily the most familiar hymn associated with Epiphany, at least as it’s celebrated in the Western Church. I wrote more extensively about Epiphany itself in my post on Janauary 6th, the traditional date of the feast (Epiphany – Faith vs. Power).  Because today is the formal liturgical celebration in many dioceses, I’d like to focus briefly on the song.

“We Three Kings” was written by John Henry Hopkins, jr. in 1857.  At the time he was rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  At the same time he was a deacon and music teacher at General Theological Seminary in New York City.  He composed the song for a Christmas pageant at the the seminary.

Over the next few years, Hopkins shared the song every year with his family and friends.  Everyone thought highly enough of “We Three Kings” that Hopkins published it in a book of carols and religious songs in 1863.  It achieved wide popularity in United States, and was published in Britain in 1928. It has since become one of the most popular Christmas carols. You can read a fuller treatment of the song’s history here.

Last year’s Epiphany reflection: “9th Day of Christmas: The Feast of Epiphany

Epiphany, by Fernando Gallego, 1480-1490

King, Priest, and Prophet

  In the first stanza of the song, we hear the Magi, the wise men from the East from the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, introduce themselves as “We Three Kings.”  Each king in turn describes the gift he brings to baby Jesus in the next three stanzas.  These are the three gifts we see in the Gospel account: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  Each gift denotes one of Christ’s roles as savior.  Gold represents kingship, Frankincense priesthood. Myrrh, which was used in embalming bodies, pointed to his prophetic death.  All three kings sing together again in the final stanza.

The Wikipedia entry tells us that

The carol’s melody has been described as “sad” and “shifting” in nature. Because of this, it highly resembles a song from the Middle Ages and Middle Eastern music, both of which it has been frequently compared to.

The beautiful and solemn performance of “We Three Kings” in the clip below gives the song an appropriately regal air.  The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sings the song.  I have included several artistic depictions of the Three Wise men from different eras.  The words are posted beneath.

May you have a blessed Epiphany!

We Three Kings Clip

We Three Kings:

AllWe Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder Star.
RefrainO Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with Royal Beauty bright,
Westward leading,
Still proceeding,
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.
GaspardBorn a King on Bethlehem plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King for ever,
Ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
MelchiorFrankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
Prayer and praising
All men raising,
Worship Him God on High.
BalthazarMyrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
Sorrowing, sighing,
Bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
AllGlorious now behold Him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice;
Heav’n sings Hallelujah:
Hallelujah the earth replies.

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