“We Three Kings,” one of the few American carols, is…well…off base. At least portions of it. First, the magi were star students—either astrologers or astronomers or some combination—not kings. Also, there’s no evidence they were three. Why do we picture that number? Probably because the wise men brought three gifts. Also, while we’re debunking myths, they didn’t come to the stable, as we often see depicted. Their journey took months, possibly even over a year, so they came to Jesus’ house. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany after Christmas—to give the magi time to arrive.
So why do I love “We Three Kings?” First, there’s the tune: mournful yet engaging, brooding yet hopeful. I love the way the tune plods upward as we sing: “field and fountain, moor and mountain,” then dances over “following yonder star.”
Second, the lyrics prophecy Jesus’ full mission: birth, ministry, death, and glorification. And they do so with such artistry:
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in a stone-cold tomb,
Frankincense to offer have I/incense owns a deity nigh
and, of course,
Star of wonder, star of night/Star with royal beauty bright
Profound. And beautiful.
The carol’s epic scope is appropriate for Epiphany: the culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas. After all, with the magi’s visit, the Good News went global.
One last reason I love this carol: in the late ‘80s, when Claymation animation was hot, the song was featured in A Claymation Christmas. The “three kings” lead off with the stanzas, then the tune rocks out as the camels take over. That’s right. Camels sporting bowties, awesome footwear, and even a fez. And these dromedaries can sing. You should check it out; it’s life changing.
A happy 2017 to you all. May God gift you will all you need to be all you can be.