Weirdest Baby Shower Ever: Epiphany 2020

Williamsport, Pennsylvania, 1857. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. was an Episcopal minister, a church rector, and a seminary music teacher. The seminary college was getting together a Christmas pageant and Hopkins the music teacher was working on a hymn. It was a brief but profound hymn — brief because it consisted only of three soloists representing the Magi with refrains, profound because it invoked the traditional meaning of their three strange gifts.

And they are strange, right? I’ve never been to a baby shower, they are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but I don’t think this is what goes on. Hopkins’ great hymn gets at what they’re all about. You can turn to it if you like, at #104.

We Three Kings, it begins. It’s often pointed out that the Gospel doesn’t specify that there were three of them, or that they were kings, but that doesn’t prove they weren’t. Whatever. We Three Kings of Orient Are. I got pretty far in life without a clue what those words in that order even meant. I sort of figured 'Orient Arr' was a place somewhere. [Maybe near the Castle Arrrrrr? Monty Python fans? Anyone?...] It’s just an unusual word order, though. Orient means east: “We are three  Kings from the East.” But all old-fashioned and poetic-like, eh?

Bearing gifts we traverse afar… Field and fountain, Moor and mountain, Following yonder Star. Why did they pass a fountain? Because they definitely passed some mountains and what else are you going to rhyme with that?

     O Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
     Star with Royal Beauty bright,
     Westward leading,
     Still proceeding,
     Guide us to Thy perfect Light.

I almost had another chuckle at Hopkins' expense about “Star of Night,” like come on John Henry, that’s just a bit on the obvious side, what other kind is there? But then I remembered one of the titles for the Messiah in the Old Testament: the Daystar. I wonder if Hopkins was thinking about that. This star is just a signpost, of course, it’s praised in his song for its ‘royal beauty bright,’ but it’s still only leading them to the true Light. Emphasizing that: guide us to thy perfect light. What’s the perfect light? Not what… Who!

This is where it really gets good, though. The first soloist, named here Gaspard, describes his gift and its meaning. Born a King on Bethlehem plain,Gold I bring to crown Him again… There’s an acknowledgment that this child was King before anyone could crown Him.
usually you become a King when you're crowned... but we can only 'crown again' Him who was 'born a King.' And gold is the most kingly gift. What’s so royal about gold? It’s shiny and rare and hard to find, and that counts for a lot. But it's not just the rarity and appearance, but the properties of the stuff. It’s not the only shiny thing, but it’s the only thing that stays so perfect and shiny. It doesn’t tarnish. It doesn’t seem to age at all, because the element gold is just so incredibly chemically inert. Gold is one of the physical substances that most evokes the idea of permanence. And Gaspard intends exactly that:
    King for ever,
    Ceasing never
    Over us all to reign.

The next verse belongs to the man traditionally named Melchior:

   Frankincense to offer have I,
   Incense owns a Deity nigh:

Okay a huge transition has just happened and Melchior makes sure we catch it. They’ve come into this place and found this little family and this tiny baby, you know the scene, and he’s saying here is Deity, here is God. Because that’s what incense is for. Gold is for a King, but incense is for a God. In the Old Testament it was prescribed for Temple worship. Psalm 141 prays: “let my prayers rise up like incense before you;” incense is a symbol of our prayers rising to God, in both Old and New Testaments. Read Revelation describing the eternal liturgy in Heaven, and incense is right in the middle of it. It also just evokes an atmosphere of mystery and transcendence, doesn’t it? My theory on incense is that if you can see the altar there’s not enough of it.

     Prayer and praising
     All men raising,
     Worship Him God on High.

So he’s a King, but a God-King. This is actually a common enough idea in the ancient world, and not so ancient for that matter, the idea that the King or Emperor was actually divine. Caesar in Rome had that kind of a thing going. In fact, many of the early Christians who were martyred were martyred precisely for refusing to offer incense to Caesar. Why? Because to do so would have been understood as acknowledging Caesar as divine. But there’s only one God. He’s not in a palace with an army. He’s in a stable with some shepherds. Incense owns a Deity nigh.

The next verse brings an astonishing change of tone. King and God: so far, so triumphant. But Balthazar presents the final gift:

    Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
    Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
    Sorrowing, sighing,
    Bleeding, dying,
    Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Um, happy baby shower? Imagine if you invited me to your baby shower and I showed up with a funeral pall as a gift. Like, what are you doing, man? Get out of here. But he’s right. Myrrh is a burial ointment. The meaning is shocking but it’s clear. Even now, newborn in Bethlehem, there is something of looming tragedy. The early Church Fathers compared the wood of the manger to the wood of the Cross, they thought God didn't do that by accident. Burial ointment isn't something you’d think to give a newborn, it’s beyond strange, and yet... no child is ever born who will not one day need burial. We can pretend we don’t know that. Or we can ignore it, ignore it as hard as we can. Or we can embrace the One who came to save us from it and give us eternal life.

     Glorious now behold Him arise,
     King, and God, and Sacrifice;

See?! Get it now?! King and God and Sacrifice. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

     Heav'n sings Hallelujah:
     Hallelujah the earth replies.

I'm happy to report that Hopkins’ hymn was a hit at the 1857 Williamsport Christmas pageant. It remained popular among his friends and family and they convinced him to publish it. It became the first major Christmas Carol to come from the United States of America. But even more importantly, it’s darn good theology. The men who chose these gifts were wise indeed. They knew, somehow by grace they understood Who it was they came to see. King and God and Sacrifice, the one who would rise from His tomb. And so the great Christmas hymn ends with the Easter cry: Hallelujah! Heaven sings Hallelujah, Hallelujah the earth replies. Hallelujah, the Church replies. Happy Epiphany!


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