SINGING THE FAITH: WE THREE KINGS, AND THE TWO CHRISTMASES
Because I added Tony Alonso’s lovely Communion song, Table of Emmanuel,to the Christmas music this year, we aren’t singing We Three Kings which is a mixed blessing. Of course, it’s a song that everyone knows, so that’s a big plus. But it also has five stanzas, which makes it too long for anything except Communion – even at the preparation of gifts, we don’t always get to the final stanza, which has the payoff line of the text, “Glorious now behold him arise/King, and God, and sacrifice.” After naming the gifts in each of three verses about gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the poet tells us in a word why each gift was chosen by the evangelist: gold for Jesus the king, frankincense for Jesus, the Son of God and myrrh for Jesus, the sacrificial victim.
On the other hand, the hymn We Three Kings does perpetuate the non-scriptural tradition that there were three kings. There’s actually nothing in the story that says the three visitors were kings, and actually nothing that says there were three of them. There are three gifts in Mahew’s narratives, and that is why tradition talks about three givers, but it’s not specified in the gospel. Syrian tradition remembers twelve magi. Other ancient accounts describe the three magi as visitors from India, Arabia and Persia, among many other places. In the New Testament, the word magus (pl. magi) is generally meant in the sense of magician, but the origin of the word is in Zoroastrianism, which frowned upon magic and was the word used to describe a religious caste specializing in astrology, considered a science. (In one Syrian text, it is a prophecy of Zoroaster himself which initiates the search of the magi!)
But We Twelve Astrologers doesn’t fit the tune or the meter, so we have We Three Kings.
Epiphany is the last day this year that we will be using our suite of Christmas acclamations and songs. The church season of Christmas extends to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Sunday after Epiphany. But because of calendar quirks this year (with Christmas falling on Monday), the feast of the Baptism of the Lord will be this Monday, and so next Sunday will begin Ordinary Time, through mid-February, when we will celebrate Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day.
I hope you celebrated the “twelve days of Christmas” this year. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, Christmas day itself is the first day of Christmas, and the twelfth day of Christmas is January 6th, the original date of Epiphany and still the date Christmas is celebrated in the Eastern church. The story of why there are two Christmases originates in theological arguments in the early centuries of the church, arguments which began with the dating of the death of Jesus, not his birth. Two dates, March 25th (in the west) and April 6th (in the east), were alleged to be the date that Jesus was crucified and died, based upon the evidence as understood from the gospels. Another tradition held that the Messiah was conceived and died on the same day. Hence, the feast of Christmas was established on December 25th, nine months after March 25th in the west (Rome) and on January 6th (nine months after April 6th) in the East (Constantinople). Rome set the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th as well, but eventually the Paschal Triduum became a moveable feast in both parts of the church based on the date of the spring equinox and the full moon that followed it. To this date, both Eastern and Western Christmas and Easter are celebrated on separate dates.
I love the way the Church looks and sounds through the holiday season. We sing “light and life to all he brings,” and the Church is filled with beautiful light in the midst of the long nights and short days of winter. Thanks to everyone who participates in our liturgies of the season, and to the ministers who serve us, including the choir and musicians. And a big thank you again to those who worked to make the environment of the Church so beautiful, warm and welcoming as well. I hate to see it go, but keep the loving light of Christmas burning through the winter as we wait for the Easter light to fill the church at the Great Vigil on Saturday, March 31st!