Unlikely Christmas Carol: Patti Smith’s Kings

While it’s easy to forget this side of New Year’s, we are still actually in the season of Christmas. Knowing that the marvel and wonder and mystery of the Incarnation can’t be comprehended too quickly, the Church established twelve days of Christmas that stretch from the Feast of the Incarnation, on December 25, to the day before the Epiphany of our Lord, on January 6.

So on this the 9th day of Christmas, and anticipating the Epiphany celebration that falls this Sunday, I thought I would highlight one more Unlike Christmas Carol. This one also comes from A Very Special Christmas 3: Patti Smith’s version of “We Three Kings.”

Written in 1857 by Episcopalian rector John Henry Hopkins, Jr., likely as part of a Christmas pageant he ran at General Theological Seminary in New York, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” chronicles the journey of the magi to bring their gifts to the newborn King as narrated in Matthew 2. What I like so much about Smith version is that she includes the stories around it, reading portions of Matthew’s account describing the journey of the Magi but also extending it to include the story of the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” This darker, sobering rendition of the song does justice, I think, to the larger context in which Matthew tells his story. (In fact, I’ve invited preachers this week to contemplate sharing Matthew “adults-only” version of the nativity as it provides a measure of realism and hope that is particularly important after events like those in Newtown, Ct.)

Which is what, I think, the gospel should do. It is both joyful and realistic, indeed all the more joyful because of it’s refusal to look away from the difficult parts of our lives. So also the Christmas story – it is a delight to share with our children, yet also speaks to our more adults concerns and fears. So I hope that as you listen to Patti Smith’s honest interpretation of John Henry Hopkins’ beautiful hymn, you also will be refreshed in your sense of the unfailing hope and help of the gospel to address the most pressing needs of our life.

Blessed Christmas and Epiphany!

Notes: 1) If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click here to watch the video.
2) For more on how the story of the kings and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents relates to the events in Newtown, you can see a recent piece I wrote for the Huffington Post.
3) Post image: “The Magi,” by Henry Siddons Mow, 1915.