“The First Nowell” is a traditional English Christmas carol with Cornish origins, most likely from the early modern period, although possibly earlier. It mixes stories from St Luke and St Mathew as it retells the Christmas story. You can hear it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0u5UvnKlCTA
The first noel, the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. In fields where they lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel Born is the King of Israel!
They looked up and saw a star shining in the East beyond them far. And to the earth it gave great light and so it continued both day and night.
And by the light of that same star three Wise men came from country far to seek for a King was their intent and to follow the star wherever it went.
This star drew nigh to the northwest o’er Bethlehem it took its rest and there it did both Pause and stay right o’er the place where Jesus lay.
Then entered in those wise men three full reverently upon their knee. And offered there in His presence their gold and myrrh and frankincense.
Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord that hath made Heaven and earth of nought and with his blood our kind has bought.
St Matthew 2: 1 – 12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
As our Christmas cards hit the recycling bin, I’ll bet there were some showing the ‘Three Kings’ who visited Jesus with gifts, the event we celebrate at Epiphany.
Except, of course, they weren’t kings. Today we’d call them astronomers. Clever, certainly, and probably rich, but not kings. I can see why the tradition arose, though. Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 talk about kings paying homage to God’s Messiah. There’s even frankincense mentioned.
Jesus was born into a land under Roman rule, so they knew about kings bowing down to greater kings and offering them costly gifts. This was how the Romans governed. They installed local vassal kings and expected to be paid handsomely for the enforced peace and justice of the Empire. And the Old Testament is littered with sub-kings paying homage to their overlords. Sometimes it was lesser nations bringing gifts to Israel’s Solomon, but mostly it was conquered Israel being looted by Assyria, Babylon, etc.
So what of our wise men? If they’re not foreign royals acknowledging another king, who are they? They are called magi, a title given to Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Wait! What? You mean they were pagans? They didn’t even believe in God?
Probably not. But that’s the whole point. Had they been earthly kings, they would just have been paying homage to an earthly King of the Jews. A little king of a little place, easy to keep in check. But as priests, they were paying homage to the ultimate King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods. A much bigger deal. The biggest deal imaginable.
And what of us? Do we put God in a nice little box, king of this part of our world, but not that? Let’s be honest; the answer is yes. We all do it although we know we shouldn’t. Which parts of our lives have not acknowledged God? Money, relationships, career? Dare we ask God for help?
King of all kings, God of all gods, brother Jesus, thank you that your kingship stretches further than any county, wider than any century broader than any culture, language, or time. With the wise men of old, I kneel at your throne. I offer you gifts of body, mind, and heart. I acknowledge you Lord of all and ask that you accept me into your service. Amen.
Fay Rowland, author and minister-in-training, worshipping at Christ the King, Kettering.