"These Kings of the East": Epiphany, native Anglican piety, and a sarcastic Lutheran

Across all the parishes of Christendom ... the plebs sancta dei - the holy common people of God.

The words are from Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy.  No, it certainly is not a favourite text of mine.  The words, however, came to mind after reading this tweet on the feast of the Epiphany:

Here we have a progressive, 'woke', apparently edgy take which simply dismisses the Epiphany prayers and piety of ordinary Christians - plebs sancta dei - over centuries.

And yet, the Epiphany prayers and piety of the plebs sancta dei reveal a deep wisdom and a profound engagement with Scripture.  To call the Magi 'kings' was to recognise in the Epiphany a fulfilment of Isaiah's vision:

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising... they shall bring gold and incense - Isaiah 60:3, 6.

This recognises that the Magi represented the culture, prestige, and power of a pagan kingdom.  Their act of adoration, therefore, represented the homage of kings to Israel's King.  It was that which the Prophet foresaw.

The portrayal of three figures is not late superstition.  The earliest depiction of the Magi (shown above), from 3rd century Roman catacombs, shows three figures.  It is, in other words, a depiction older than the New Testament Canon and the Creeds.  In artistic terms it emphasises the three gifts recorded by St Matthew, drawing us to reflect on their meaning.

Even when it comes to the later naming of the Magi, this is a way of reminding us that we are not talking about a concept or an ideology, but persons encountering the Person of the Incarnate Word.

One last detail - camels.  No, St Matthew does not mention camels ("NOT IN THE BIBLE"), but Reformed theologian Peter Leithart points to how this also references the vision of Isaiah (60:6):

Christian artists knew what they were about when they gave the magi camels. Camels don’t make an appearance in Matthew, but, when we read Matthew through Isaiah, we know that the camels belong in the creche.

The tradition of the Three Kings, then, is a deep reading of Scripture, a deep reading of Scripture which has captivated the imagination of the plebs sancta dei and drawn us deeper into the mystery of the Lord's Incarnation and Epiphany.  To reject this tradition because it is "NOT IN THE BIBLE" is to propose a flattened, banal reading of Scripture. Against this flattened, banal reading we can insist that the traditional rendering of the Magi is in the Bible, in the depths of the relationship between St Matthew's Gospel and the prophetic vision of Isaiah.

Against this background John H. Hopkins's Epiphany carol 'We Three Kings' is a populist expression of a deep reading of Scripture.  Hopkins, of course, was an Episcopal bishop.  The carol is now part of our native piety as Anglicans, and it echoes a classical Anglican expression of the traditional reading of the Epiphany - Lancelot Andrewes's famous sermon included a reference to "these Kings of the East". What is more, we can make an argument that the carol's inclusion in authorised hymnals and its consistent use by the plebs sancta dei (from patristic times and in the Anglican tradition) means that the exhortation of Article 34 applies to the traditional Epiphany piety which it embodies:

Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

So, no, we should not heed the advice of a sarcastic Lutheran.  We should instead rejoice that a populist Epiphany piety - wonderfully expressed by Hopkins - continues to imaginatively engage and captivate, a deep reading of Scripture which the Church is called to cherish over and against the banal conclusions of private judgement, even that of progressive ecclesial celebrities.


  1. A magos is not a basileus, though. It is fine to conflate the two and sing songs about it, it is fine not to get too caught up on literalisms sometimes. But kings don't go following stars, magi do. The Gentiles did "come to his light", as the story says...that's what the magi always do, that's why they're magi, because they actually went and found out, not second hand knowledge but an actual experience by which they gained wisdom and knowledge to take back to their countries. That's not the job of kings. "Kings to the brightness of his dawning" happened later. First, magi. Then, with the knowledge of the magi, kings. The Indo-European peoples always divided these duties, sometimes very strictly, and in the case of India, still divide them very strictly. There were a great many kings though, under the King of Kings, as the name implies. Perhaps the magi brought a couple with them, but again, that's not something satraps or Shahanshahs would ever do, by longstanding religious and cultural tradition. If they're coming, they're usually coming to take you over or take you out. And do you think the Romans would have allowed Persian kings to come wandering through such a politically explosive area? I mean, the long friendship between the Jews and Persians...talk about an even more dangerous powder keg than Palestine was already. It would have been entirely understandable for the Romans to think the Persians were plotting with Jews, if satraps showed up with lots of money! I do truly appreciate the popular piety, as an organist/choirmaster, but good Lord this gets more absurd the more you look at it. No need to poo poo everyone, but to take a fresh look at the well-intentioned misunderstandings of our ancestors is also worth it. Do not think that the magi were poor country parish priests however, especially those with the money to travel. They would have looked quite the sight, surely.

    1. Clinton, many thanks for your comment. I do, however, disagree with much of this. To describe the Magi as 'kings' reflects the fact that they did embody a pagan empire. Matthew's presentation of the visit and adoration of the Magi is clearly shaped by Isaiah's visions and, for example, Psalm 72. This is the homage of pagan kingdoms, something which Herod and 'Jerusalem' discerned, hence their concern.

      I think we have to be very careful when it comes to the division of kings and Magi, not least because for most of human history societies and cultures have not understood kingship or political power apart from religion.

      Incidentally, it is precisely because of Roman-Persian tensions that I think the the traditional figure of three is actually entirely possible - a small grouping would not have attracted significant attention. And, of course, being mindful of the tensions, we would assume that they took every precaution not to attract undue attention.

      So, no, I do not think that the traditional piety is absurd at all. I do think it reflects both a 'deep' reading of Scripture and something of the realities of the historical context.

      The very early emergence of the figure of three, together with a contemporary knowlege of the troubled Roman-Persian frontier, means that the traditional account is pretty persuasive.


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