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Star of wonder, star of night

Star of wonder, star of night

by Maria Evans

O star of wonder, star of night,

star with royal beauty bright;

westward leading, still proceeding,

guide us to thy perfect light!.–Refrain, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., forever altered how we view Epiphany and the Magi when he wrote “We Three Kings” in 1857, because his carol created a theology to go with it.

What we understand about the Magi is pretty sketchy, at least in terms of guidance from the Gospels. We essentially know there were Magi, but really, we presume there were three because only three gifts are mentioned. There could have been many more. It’s only by tradition that we know them as Balthazar, Melichor, and Caspar (or Gaspar, in some renditions)–derived from a Greek manuscript probably written in Alexandria around 500 A.D. But it was the then-Deacon Hopkins who gave them voice for the first time, and a theology to accompany their gifts…”Gold I bring to crown him again,” (the ruler of Christ’s Kingdom)…”Incense owns a deity nigh,” (the Son of God)…and myrrh’s “bitter perfume” symbolizing the Crucifixion. Thanks to Hopkins, we have connected Gaspar to gold, Melchior to frankincense, and Balthazar to myrrh.John_Henry_Hopkins_Jr_full_size.jpg

Likewise, parts of Hopkins’ life seem shrouded in mystery. He was the son of the Bishop of Vermont. His father later became the 8th Presiding Bishop. In a time when the role of deacons was less uniformly understood, he chose to be a deacon for 22 years, only accepting Holy Orders to the priesthood upon the urging of his bishop. He composed music, taught music at the General Theological Seminary, wrote poetry, and designed stained glass windows. Two U.S. censuses show him living with the family of a friend. About the only in-depth view we have of him comes from a biography written shortly after his death by The Rev. Charles F. Sweet, “A champion of the cross, being the life of John Henry Hopkins, S.T.D.” It reads in that rather flowery way that Victorian biographies tend to read, so it’s hard to interpret. He never married; although we can never know for sure, one can’t help but wonder if, in another time, he’d be considered or assumed part of God’s Rainbow Tribe.

Yet this man that we only seem to know superficially, left a legacy by giving depth and breath and voice to the most important figures in the Epiphany story–through a song, that, in some ways sounds older than it is. Had we been asked to recite all we know about the Magi from rote, it would not have the attraction, nor the joy. Almost all of us can sing at least one verse of “We Three Kings” (and maybe even the childhood parody, “We three kings of Orient are, tryin’ to smoke a rubber cigar. It was loaded and it exploded, that’s how we got this far.”) I’ve never seen a person sing “We Three Kings,” who didn’t start moving their head from side to side, or a smile not cross their face. It seems that even singing the hymn creates a mini-Epiphany in itself.

Epiphany is a season of wonder and discovery–to travel in search of something or someone we’re looking for, and our only way of recognizing Christ in it is, “We’ll know it when we see it.” It’s a pretty inefficient and sometimes confusing and tiring way to go about things–sometimes it even comes with danger should our search be fruitful, choosing to go home another way–but when we discover Christ in it, our weariness almost instantly turns to joy. What are the songs that give depth and breath and voice to your own journeys to discover Christ, when the road is not well-mapped?

More on Hopkins and drawing from Trinity Wall Street

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Maria L. Evans

James, I suspect your theory has merit. Thanks for this!

james lodwick

As others have already noted, there is much ancient precedent for the association of the three gifts of the Magi with aspects of Christ’s theological significance. One very old example is from the Cathemerinon of the fourth-century Christian Latin poet, Prudentius, later cento’ed and translated in the hymn “Earth has many a noble city” (No. 127 in the Hymnal 1982). Similar associations are made in the ancient Latin breviaries, both in various responsories at Matins and also in the Epiphany homilies of ancient bishops (e.g., Gregory the Great). Given that Hopkins grew up in a scholarly household, had both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Vermont at a time when the Greek and Latin classics were still widely studied, as well as a degree from General Seminary, and was himself a poet and hymnodist, it is not unlikely that he may have known some of these sources. He may, as you say, have possibly been the first to make an association between the individual gifts and a particular named “King,” but perhaps it would be worth researching if even that also had ancient precedent. In any case, Hopkins did beautifully popularize the tradition, and for that we can be grateful.

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for this. Interesting. That said, Hopkins gave them “individual assignments,” and I suspect this theology would have been unknown to the rank and file until it became known in a simple, singable form.

Gregory Orloff

The ancient Byzantine hymns of Compline for Christmas Eve and Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition also ascribe the same significance of the Magi’s gifts that Hopkins elaborated in his carol:

The kings, the first fruits of the Gentiles,

bring you gifts at your birth in Bethlehem

from a mother who knew no travail.

With myrrh they point to your death,

with gold, to your royal power,

with frankincense, to the preeminence of your divinity.

When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah,

Magi coming from the East

worshipped God made man.

And eagerly opening their treasures,

offering him precious gifts:

refined gold, as to the King of the ages;

frankincense, as to the God of all;

myrrh, as to the Immortal One three days dead.

Come, all you nations, let us worship him

who was born to save our souls!

Maria L. Evans

I have no idea, Rev. Kurt…but it’s a great question! Perhaps other, more knowledgeable readers know.

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