Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Eleventh Day of Christmas ― The Three Kings

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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today is the Eleventh Day of Christmas, just one day before the Epiphany, the time when, according to Biblical legend, the Three Kings (or sages, or wise men, or sorcerers) were approaching Bethlehem to see the newborn Christ Child.

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According to the story told in the Christian Bible (Matthew 2:1-12), three wise men, or kings, heard of the birth of an infant king, and, guided by a star, made their way to Bethlehem to worship and do homage.

Like many Bible stories, this one hangs by a thread. Of the four Gospels, only Matthew mentions the three kings and their journey. Here are the portions that tell us about the three men and their journey:
Matthew 2
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

9 When they had heard [Herod], they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
(I’ve left out the verses about the Nastiness of Herod.)

So, that’s the whole “Three Kings” story.

Christianity has crafted a magical, mystical mythology about these three travelers that has endured for centuries, fabricating their number (three), their nationalities (Persian, and/or Assyrian, and/or Babylonian, and/or Chinese, and/or Arabian), and their names (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). St. Augustine further endowed the Magi with superhuman powers, crediting them with accomplishing their journey from Persia to Bethlehem, a trek of 1000-1200 miles which would have taken a year or so, in just thirteen days.

The magis’ gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – have been imbued with symbolic Christian meanings not mentioned in the Bible (gold being a symbol of Christ’s reign on Earth; frankincense, used during worship, being a symbol of deity; and myrrh, used in embalming, being a symbol and predictor of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, and therefore, an implied representation of his resurrection and purpose for the salvation of humans).

Well, that’s a lot of story from a few bare-boned Bible verses. But as a story, it’s charming. Who can resist those names ― “Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar”?

And it has given us some lovely art works, such as this, the “Drei Koenige” (Three Kings) from the St. Albans Psalter, an illuminated manuscript created at, or for, St. Albans Abbey (England) in the 12th century.

And of course, the story of the Three Kings has inspired some wonderful music. No, not the insipid carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but the marvelous, exotic regal “March of the Three Kings” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, a setting of words by Ursula Williams.

As I wrote some weeks ago about this music : “The entire movement is truly compelling, with the swaying steps of the camels so perfectly depicted, the exotic “Eastern” colors in the melodies and the orchestration, and the inexorable, magnificent crescendo as the Magi near Bethlehem and the full glory of the Star bursts over the horizon.”

Listen here, starting at 2:45:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-9tsAZTS1M&feature=related

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Further reading: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09527a.htm

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