We Three Kings: exegeted, explained, and exposed

A carol-commentary for the Festival of Epiphany
(a little weird, a little forced, perhaps a little sin-ical ?)

WE: the first person plural subject of the song, suggesting this comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak

THREE: or perhaps four, or maybe seven, or even twelve, or some other indeterminate number, since the initial story does not specify the precise number of subjects in the story

KINGS: or some say wise men, or others say sages, which they offer as an interpretation of the term magus, used in the initial narrative … so perhaps the subjects of the song are Zoroastrians, for whom star-watching was a highly-developed skill.

OF ORIENT: or, lands east of Israel, so perhaps Babylon, or even further to the east, in Parthia, where the Zoroastrian faith was dominant

ARE: the main verb, denoting the existential state of being of the subjects

BEARING: adverbial participle, descriptive of the activity of the aforesaid subjects of the song

GIFTS: by tradition, three of them [see below], which goes to explain why you might think there are three of the subjects [see above] … and providing grist for the mill for the idea that these subjects were kings, since Psalm 72:10-11 speaks about kings bringing gifts to the King of Israel

WE TRAVERSE AFAR: presumably on camels, the deluxe form of transportation of the time … although ………

FIELD AND FOUNTAIN, MOOR AND MOUNTAIN: a little bit of poetic excursus, a selective account of the natural phenomena encountered on the journey, arranged in alliterative couplets (it feeds the creative imagination of the listener/singer, you see)

FOLLOWING: another adverbial participle, providing a second description of the activity of the subjects

YONDER STAR: a bright celestial phenomenon, shining in the eastern sky but apparently moving or pointing in the direction of Israel, which was dutifully followed by the subjects

star on a dark background

O Star of wonder, star of night / Star with royal beauty bright /
Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to thy Perfect Light:
more poetic extrapolation, as befits the season

*****

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain / GOLD I bring to crown Him again /
King forever, ceasing never / Over us all to reign:
which explains the claim that the subjects of the song are kings, as the gift of gold was what the kings of the nations bring to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6–bearing in mind the injunction of Exodus 20:23, that this gift of gold not be in the form of any idol

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

FRANKINCENSE to offer have I / Incense owns a Deity nigh /
Prayer and praising, all men [oops!] raising / Worship Him, God most high:
in relation to the gift of frankincense, as already noted above, the kings of the nations bring this to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6 … and, ahhh, presumably there has been a divine change of mind since Isaiah 1:13, where the Lord God declared that “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” ?

***

MYRRH is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes of life of gathering gloom /
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying /Sealed in the stone-cold tomb:
curiously, there is no scriptural tradition about kings bringing myrrh to the Lord

Nevertheless, myrrh certainly featured as a gift in the religious practices of Israel, according to Exodus 30:23–27 (The LORD spoke to Moses: “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil’ — an oil to anoint “the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand”)

As the song signifies, it points forward to a moment in the passion of Jesus as narrated at Mark 15:23, where it is mixed with wine [but in that case, the gift was not accepted] and to the burial scene as reported at John 19:39, where it is mixed with aloes.

And let’s not make any link to the scene in Revelation 18:11-13, where the merchants of the world lament the fact that nobody is purchasing their goods any longer … goods which include, amongst many options, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh …

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

Glorious now behold Him arise / King and God and Sacrifice /
Alleluia, Alleluia / Earth to heav’n replies:
adhering to the Golden Evangelical Rule of always taking the opportunity to smuggle Easter and the Cross and the Sacrifice of Jesus into any song or sermon or worship service or, even, Christmas/Epiphany Carol!

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

So: Merry EndofChristmas and HappyEpiphany!!!

And for more exotica on the Magi, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/04/tales-from-the-magi-the-revelation-of-the-magi/

On the move: a central feature of the Christmas story

At Christmas, we recall a familiar story. Central to the story is the baby born in a manger, because “there was no room in the inn”. This element is, of course, told and retold countless times in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and in churches in every country around the world, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

That part of the story gets disseminated widely. That part of the story contributes strongly to the warm, fuzzy vibe that Christmas brings to many people. Less well shared, however, is that part of the story which reports that this family were soon under threat, and they hurriedly fled to another country, seeking the safety of refuge, until the threat was over.

Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise the first part of the story—the babe in the manger in Bethlehem. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel, imagining it in the picture perfect way of so many cards and carols: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.

As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals, because there was no room, not in “the inn”, but rather in the guest room of the house where they were (according to the story) staying that night. So at the time when Mary gave birth, there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the animals, all around.

We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child (Luke 2:8–16) would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considers impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!

We forget, also, that Luke’s account of this birth places it in Bethlehem, which is not the place where the newly-formed family lived. They had been forced to travel there, according to Luke’s account, because of a nation-wide census that was required by the Romans (Luke 2:1-7).

Giving birth to the child in that town, in that room, in that manger, was not the plan that his parents initially had; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude. This part of the story is not at all the comfortable and soothing scene that cards and carols regularly depict. The birth takes place after a forced journey, in an less than desirable setting.

*****

The second part of the story, that found in the Gospel of Matthew, also has an unexpected and forced journey involved. This part of the story relates to the rapid flight that the family took after the child was born, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, a foreign country (Matt 2:13-15). Matthew’s contribution to the story rarely fosters those warm, fuzzy vibes that many associate with Christmas.

And often, in church, this part of the story is left for the time after Christmas Day—which is logical, since this is where it comes in the flow of the story; but which means that, downunder at least, it is featured during the Great Summer Holiday which comes immediately after the feasting and festivities of Christmas Day (and Boxing Day, if there are still plentiful left overs!)

Matthew’s account sets out very clearly that this journey was not part of the original plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge. It was a temporary measure, undertaken under great duress.

The ruler who gives the order which provokes the family to undertake this journey is the man whom Jesus once called “that fox”: Herod. Ruling over Judea as a client king of the Romans, Herod was a half-Jewish man who had risen to the top of Jewish society through political cunning and strategic marriages. He had a reputation for violent brutality.

Matthew’s story recounts that Herod ordered that all male children under two years of age should be killed, to ensure that this potential rival to his rule would be safely despatched (Matt 2:1-3, 16-18). Jesus survived this because his parents were advised of the imminent pogrom by visitors “from the east” who had come via the court of Herod (Matt 2:13-15). This part of the story also does not sound relaxed, sweet, and comfortable!

And then, as the story in Matthew’s account continues, there is yet another journey, returning from Egypt, back into Israelis–but not Judea, for fear of the ruler who followed Herod, his son Archelaus; rather, to Galilee, where the family,settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). Another episode of dislocation and disruption, that rarely features in the classic carols and Christmas cards.

*****

It is because of these disruptive and confronting elements in the story that, in my mind, Christmas challenges us to think about those who have no shelter. It especially invites us to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.

While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, UNHCR data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-COVID circumstances, and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.

Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a ceasefire that would facilitate the COVID-19 response, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, above one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.

Most recent statistics from the UNHCR,
as of mid-2021

In that spirit, as we celebrate Christmas, let us also commit to working to ensure safety and security for those who are imperilled, homeless, stateless, and on the move. There are so many such people in our world today. There are so many ways we can live out the Christmas story as we reach out to them.

*****

The image is La Sagrada Familia by Kelly Latimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/25/acting-for-peace-through-the-christmas-bowl/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

Realism at Christmas

The combined collection of traditional carols that we sing each Christmas demonstrate a very strange dichotomy.

On the one hand, there are those carols, or verses in carols, which go goo-gah at ten news of the cute little bay by, ruddy-cheeked and gurgling enticingly (or sleeping silently, making not a hint of baby noise).

On the other hand, there are those carols that really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, bring peace and joy, salvation and redemption, to the whole world. They move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time, into an ethereal heavenly realm.

Aotearoa/New Zealand hymn writer Colin Gibson has written a fine hymn, We who love Jesus, that offers a realistic take on what Christmas might/should/must mean for people of faith:

We who love Jesus asleep in the hay,
for all those children who wander today,
homeless and hungry and driven, we pray.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.*

We who see Jesus on Mary’s sweet breast
pray for the children who are nobody’s guest,
walking to nowhere, with nowhere to rest.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

We who praise Jesus, the gentle and kind,
pray for all children unseen, out of mind,
beaten, abused or in conflict entwined.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

We who in Jesus know God come to earth
pray for all children, wherever their birth;
may they find shelter, beloved, given worth.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

*New Zealand Maori for ‘Lord, hear our prayer’;
it is pronounced ay tay areekee, fockarongo kee a ma-toe.

*****

Another much more realistic offering comes in one of my favourites, to the tune of Away in a Manger, in which Rebecca Dudley (of Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid, UK) has reworked the unrealistic saccharine lyrics of the traditional Carol into a reflection on the story in a far more realistic mode:

How ancient and lovely this news of a star,
a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.
Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay
and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here
to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?
What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there
for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;
for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,
for life in its fullness that you promise today,
and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

*****

There are some other reworkings of Away in a manger that I have collected at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/18/no-crying-he-makes-get-real-puhhh-leeeease/

*****

British lyricist Andrew Pratt has written What makes Christmas real? — a whole Carol devoted to being more realistic!

Christmas is real when the cost that we measure
reaches the manger and touches the skies,
shop fronts give way to divine revelation,
God is among us and selfishness dies.

Christmas is real when the gifts that are given
mirror the love of this God upon earth,
God who is known in self-giving and loving
crowning our poverty, coming to birth.

Christmas still echoed when screams of the children,
slaughtered by Herod inflamed people’s fear.
Christmas remains when the trees and the tinsel
make way for news that we’d rather not hear.

Christmas is real when we enter the squalor
mirrored in Bethlehem so long ago;
off’ring the love that was seen in the God-head,
total self-giving not baubles and show.

Copyright Andrew Pratt (andrewpratt@btconnect.com)

Tune: Epiphany Hymn

It was not a silent night (for Christmas)

It was not a silent night. The stables were full with extra animals from the visitors. All the animals were restless, sounding their calls with a sense of unease. They could sniff the stress of their human masters. Extra bodies meant extra chores, so there was extra stress all round.

It was not a silent night. The visitors in town made settling down well nigh impossible. Family reunions, catching up on gossip, calling around to see friends from long ago; the streets were abuzz with good-natured banter. None of the humans were silent for very long.

It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground; you could hear the young woman streets away, her cry stabbing into the night, as the new baby made his way into the world of his family.

It was not a silent night.

Still, in our time, it is not a silent night. Yes, babies are rocked to sleep, and tired visitors bunk down to rest … but still, the sighs and groans of people in distress fill our nights, invade our minds, unsettle our lives.

It is not a silent night, for the woman battered by her partner.

It is not a silent night, for the old man grieving his loss.

It is not a silent night, for the young woman and her starving children, fleeing violence, seeking safety, hoping for a second chance.

It is not a silent night, for the indigenous young man in the lockup.

If we listen with care, we will realise: it is not a silent night.

It is not a silent night in our time … and yet, still, the baby makes his way into our lives. Not to whisk us away from all the noise and distress; but to be with us, to sit with us, to grow with us, to feel with us, and to share with us.

The baby becomes the man, the one who offers acceptance to everyone; the one who reassures us we are loved; the one who holds out the gift of grace and yearns to share all of life with us.

It is not a silent night. And we are grateful.

Tales from the Magi (the Revelation of the Magi)

Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and remember the story that Matthew tells, of wise men travelling from the east, with gifts to bring to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:1-12).

Matthew doesn’t record how many Magi made this trip; this Gospel indicates only that there were more than one, by using the plural form of the noun magus. It is likely that the mention of three specific gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh, at Matt 2:11) led the tradition to settle on three as an appropriate number.

The Magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They are given names, and places of origin, in a document written in Greek around 500 CE, although this survives only in a Latin translation from the 9th century with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari . Because of this document, the Western churches identify the Magi as Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were actually twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.

In amongst the documents from antiquity that are explicitly Christian, but not included in our canonical collection, there is a work called The Revelation of the Magi. The text is found, along with other works, in a Syriac manuscript known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin.

The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who certainly number more than three in this document—perhaps even more than twelve. They are described quite differently from how they appear in the canonical account. Brent Landau completed a Harvard ThD dissertation on this document in 2008, and has since published Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation. He summarises the work:

The Magi hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam.

The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission.

The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.

*****

Of course, we recognise this to be pure fantasy—a story developed from the shorter, more modest account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. And even that canonical account, when we read it with care, can be recognised as an elaboration of a story derived from various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures—which is the way that the author of Matthew’s Gospel shapes all of his first two chapters (see Matt 1:22; 2:5,15,17,23).

The rising of the star in the east, for instance, correlates with the prophet Balaam’s prediction in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. The identification of the star as being “in the east” comes because, in Greek, the word for “east” is the same as “rising”. The Greek translation thus is ambiguous about whether the star simply “rises up out of Israel” or whether it is “to the east” of Israel.

We can see this ambiguity if we compare how different recent translations of the Bible render this phrase in Matt 2:9 — “a star they saw in the east” (KJV), “the star they had seen when it rose” (NIV and ESV), “the star they had seen at its rising” (NRSV), “the star they had seen in the east” (NLT)

The story reflects a verse in an oracle in Third Isaiah, addressed to the nation of Israel, which foresees a time when “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).

Two of the three gifts draw from later in this oracle (Isa 60:6), reflecting gold and frankincense being brought to Jerusalem by visitors from Sheba (a kingdom in South Arabia). The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

And the myrrh, in Christian tradition, is linked with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross (Mark 15:23). This symbolism reveals the reasons for adopting and expanding the earlier oracle.

And the notion that was developed later in Christian writings, that the three Magi were kings in their respective kingdoms (as in, “we three kings of orient are”), derives from the application of Isaiah 60:3 , noted above, and Psalm 72:10-11, as the psalmist praises the King of Israel and prays, “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts; may all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

It is more likely that the Magi were astronomers, rather than kings. The word magi is the plural of the Latin word magus, borrowed from the Greek magos. This, in turn, is derived from the Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan term magâunô, which signified the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. This was the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology has since led to a development from Magi to the English term magic. It is in this sense, of magician, that Luke uses the word magus to describe both Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) and Elymas, on the island of Paphos (Acts 13:6-11).

So there are a lot of accretions clinging to the story in Matthew 2, about the Magi from the east visiting Bethlehem. The basic story itself is an expanded midrash on older scriptural prophecies, worked up for the purpose of telling a fine tale. (See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/17/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history-2-luke-1-2-and-matthew-1-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/04/herod-was-infuriated-and-he-sent-and-killed-all-the-children-matt-2/)

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Landau makes further observations about the Revelation of the Magi.

The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in a work which itself is entitled “The Cave of Treasures” (dated to the sixth century) and another entitled “The Book of the Bee” (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of the story of the Revelation of the Magi are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel.

Some aspects of the Revelation of the Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into chapter 6 of the 13th century collection of stories of the saints, known as the Golden Legend. The traditions found in the Revelation of the Magi are thus surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.

See also https://www.apocryphicity.ca/2014/08/20/more-christian-apocrypha-updates-2-revelation-of-the-magi/ and https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/magi