The last Christmas carol of our Christmas series this year is “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, written by the Rev. John Henry Hopkins Jr., rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Williamsport, PA, in 1857. (Words at the end of this Post.) It should come as no surprise that he wrote it for a Christmas pageant, and because we have camels as part of our Christmas Eve services, it is a mainstay of our repertoire. Hopkins assumed, as many do, that there were three Kings since three gifts are listed in Matthew’s account; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. In fact, we know little of who they were and where they came from, except that they were paying attention to the stars, and some celestial event caused them to go from where they were to find the Christ child who had been born in Judea. (See Matthew 2:1-12 below)
In every way, this was a holy pilgrimage of adventure and discovery. Probably the most famous pilgrimage route provided the setting for one of my favorite movies, “The Way: The Camino de Santiago”. Ken Blackwood and Marc Cuneo have been walking between our own California Missions as part of their spiritual journey. While these are examples of physical pilgrimages, meant to produce a spiritual result, there are emotional and spiritual pilgrimages during which people move great distances without moving their physical location one inch.
My observation is that there are at least two forces that move people toward any sort of pilgrimage: promise and/or pain. There are instances when what is promised is so compelling that people are willing to move from the familiar good to the promise of something even better. My guess is that for the majority of us it is both the pain of remaining where we are which causes us to consider moving toward the promise of something at least a little bit better. For the kings, it was the promise of a “star”, but if we read the whole story their quest resulted in great pain as Herod sought to squelch any whiff of rebellion and committed what is known as the slaughter of the innocents. (See Matthew 2:13-18 below)
This Sunday I’m going to consider pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor as we say good-bye to 2018 and move into 2019. I’ve never been a fan of resolutions, maybe because they envision an end product that often ignores the difficult journey of real life. But maybe there is a “star” God is providing us as a guide toward the promise of life more fully lived God’s way rather than our way. What is the promise that draws me forward, and the pain that gives me a kick to get going?
Here is Matthew’s account of the Kings, and the words of the carol:
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterward, some men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard about this, he was very upset, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the teachers of the Law and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?” “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea,” they answered. “For this is what the prophet wrote: ‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means the least of the leading cities of Judah; for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.'”
So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him.”
And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star they had seen in the East. When they saw it, how happy they were, what joy was theirs! It went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him. Then they returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.
Matthew 2:13-18 (TEV)
After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.” Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
When Herod realized that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighborhood who were two years old and younger—this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared. In this way what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true: “A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for they are dead.”
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.
Born a KING on Bethlehem plain,
GOLD I bring to crown Him again,
King for ever,
Over us all to reign.
FRANKINCENSE to offer have I,
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
Prayer and praising
All men raising,
Worship Him GOD on High.
MYRRH is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise,
KING, and GOD, and SACRIFICE;
Heav’n sings Hallelujah:
Hallelujah the earth replies.