I am not sure the Rev. John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891) has done Epiphany a favour with his much-loved carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

So much of what we think we know about the story traditionally celebrated on January 6 comes, not from the account in Matthew’s Gospel, but from the carol-writer’s verse.

Hopkins famously wrote:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

In Hopkins’ version there were “three” visitors who came bearing gifts to present to Jesus. These three visitors were “kings” and they traveled to Bethlehem from the “Orient.”

Nowhere in the biblical account does Matthew specify the number of visitors. There were three gifts; but never does the text claim that each gift was brought by one traveler. The visitors are not called kings and it was not until the nineteenth century that the word “Orient” entered common usage as a designation for some place east of where we are.

John Henry Hopkins is a sobering reminder how important it is to be aware that things we think we know from the Bible may not in fact be biblical at all.  In addition to “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” Hopkins wrote a pamphlet in 1861 titled “A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, Historical View of Slavery” in which he used the Bible to “justify” slavery.

Epiphany is a story about wisdom. We approach the beginning of wisdom when we are willing to use the four words, “I may be wrong.” Mr Hopkins was wrong about slavery; he was wrong about the strange visitors who came to Bethlehem sometime after Jesus was born.

John Henry Hopkins was wrong about these visitors coming from the “Orient.” There is no place called the “Orient.” You cannot point on a map to anywhere called “Orient.” It is not a city, a country, or a continent. Saying they came from the “Orient”, is a bit like someone in Europe saying that a visitor from Canada comes from America. At least America is a continent, but it is a barely accurate description of my home. Orient is a dismissive generalization that says, in relation to me, you are from the east.

Matthew describes the journey of the visitors to Bethlehem saying,

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1)

The Greek word translated “East” is anatole. It means “a rising (of the sun and stars);” hence it became figuratively used for any place east of where I am. It is not capitalized in the original and indicates no specific geographical location. Matthew simply wants the reader to know that these visitors came from somewhere else. They did not come from Judea; they were not in any way connected ethnically to the Jewish people.

The point of saying they were “from anatole” is to alert the reader to the fact that the revelation embodied in Jesus is not confined to any ethnicity, culture, country, creed, race, or nation. The revelation of love embodied in the person of Jesus is universal, available to all people. The wisdom of Epiphany is not confined to a particular “in-group;” no one is excluded. Jesus came to throw open the doors of the kingdom of love and welcome to everyone.

This makes John Henry Hopkins’ designation of the visitors to Bethlehem his most egregious error. They were not “kings.” They are designated in Matthew’s text as magos. Magos designates, not kings, but wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers. It is not hard to imagine why John Henry Hopkins preferred to present them as “kings.”

There is only one king in this story. He is the king of love; he was born in a stable and wisdom led these magos, to seek him out and bow humbly before him. He lives everywhere and is bound by no creed, race, or practice. As we bow before love, we too will find our hearts open to the power that led magos to the light and truth embodied in Jesus.

 

 

 

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