Mystery and message set to music


Christ in Christmas Songs

We Three Kings

With Christmas Day now here, the 12 Days of Christmas now begin, lasting from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany. This day recalls St. Matthew’s account of the days after Jesus’ birth when Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Matthew writes, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they … presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”

This second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel inspired a song written and composed by American clergyman and hymnist, Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857.

“We Three Kings” was composed for a Christmas pageant at a New York seminary, and first appeared in print in Hopkins’ “Carols, Hymns, and Songs,” published in 1863.

The tune, like Matthew’s passage, tells of the Magi following the star to Jesus:

Star of Wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to thy perfect light.

Many scholars do not believe that the men coming to worship Jesus were kings; rather, it is believed they were a priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion, with a reputation in astrology; this skill led them to the Bethlehem star. Furthermore, Matthew does not mention the number of Magi visiting Jesus, only that they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Because of these three gifts, it is traditionally thought that there were only three Magi.

The mystery of these individuals is compounded further by the fact that Matthew was the only one of the four Gospel writers to mention the wise men.

Nonetheless, the message of Hopkins’ work remains the same, in singing the praises of the one “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,” who is also “King and God and Sacrifice.”

In this season, we pray and hope that everyday, we grow closer on our journey “to thy perfect light.”