Subversive Carols: We Three Kings

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

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

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Sounds through the earth and skies

In conversation, when someone uses Orient or Oriental to describe someone/something, my senses heighten and I am ready to pounce, even if it is something nice or indifferent. This is because I took a wonderful and transforming class on Postcolonial Women’s Novels. Let’s just say we read a ton on postcolonial theory. One of these theorists was the late great Edward Said, who constructed the theory of Orientalism. In summary,

“Said calls into question the underlying assumptions that form the foundation of Orientalist thinking. A rejection of Orientalism entails a rejection of biological generalizations, cultural constructions, and racial and religious prejudices. It is a rejection of greed as a primary motivating factor in intellectual pursuit. It is an erasure of the line between ‘the West’ and ‘the Other.’”

You can catch my drift. For thousands of years, Western culture has neglected and stigmatized Eastern culture declaring it less than equal. So when the opening line of “We Three Kings,” describes the kings location as in the Orient, I cringe. I want to suggest though, that “We Three Kings” mocks all of our ideas of Orientalism and forces us to sing a carol guides away from Orientalism.

Other than knowing that they are from the East, we can acknowledge that they are rich and carry gifts. Hence, they are not the romanticized foreigners, but personalized. These kings travel far following a special star that will lead them to hope. In addition, this journey is not some simple walk in a park, but very costly. They have to travel over mountains, fields, and even fountains.

Then we come to the chorus. And I assume that it’s the travelers belting it out. They are singing to the star in all its glory. It’s these last two lines of the chorus that gets tricky. They sing that they are traveling westward to see the perfect light. Could this mean the perfect light is only in the West? Or is it possible the perfect light shines in the East as much as it does in the West, since they could see it there as well? Perhaps.

In the verses following, the kings sing of the gifts they brought to the king-babe. This includes: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, of course. Here we are presented with the absurd. Kings, east of Bethlehem, bearing gifts to a newborn child who is still nursing. Strange indeed! They praise this baby as God. The last verse calls the babe, “King and God and Sacrifice.” This is a huge expectation for a child who just breathed his first breathe moments earlier. Thus “We Three Kings” presents Eastern culture as enriching and of its own. Yet, its theology sides on the ridiculous. They worship the babe-God, the divine child, the swaddling Messiah. Is this radical and subversive? Yes, certainly. Strange? Most definitely. Are we called to do the same? Absolutely! Let the incarnate God rupture your wisdom for foolishness!

three kings