Why it's time to put 'We Three Kings' (and some other carols) in the bin

What a load of nonsense is written in some Christmas carols.

Of course, many are excellent. But along with the gold there is a lot of dross. Take the line in 'Away in a manger' which asserts boldly: 'Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes'. Really? On what basis is that stated? It's certainly not in the Bible.

And then there's 'I saw three ships' in which the hymn-writer advances the dubious claim that he (or she) saw some boats containing Jesus and Mary arriving in Bethlehem on Christmas morning – a surprising feat indeed, given that the nearest body of water is the Dead Sea, some 20 miles away from that city.

Reuters.Fireworks explode during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 3, 2016.

But perhaps the most annoying carol of all is the well-known 'We Three Kings'. This was written in 1857 by one Henry Hopkins Junior, who as Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, really should have known better.

The problem is simply stated, and you know what it is: the Bible only states that the visitors from the east who came to visit Jesus were 'magi' – or wise men – rather than kings, and furthermore it doesn't say how many there were.

Furthermore, when it comes to the many reasons to dislike this carol most heartily, we might add its grating tune and contrived rhymes such as, 'Frankincense to offer have I, Incense owns a Deity nigh.' What? And as for attempting to rhyme 'perfume' with 'gloom' – so that you have to over-stress the second syllable of 'perfume' – well, as an Englishman brought up on BBC Radio 4, all I can do is respond with an eye-rolling 'per-lease'.

But there is actually a more serious reason for objecting to this carol and for pausing to reflect before we sing it without thinking. And that is the fact that at Christmas there is only one King. And He's not a resplendent man on a camel. He's a helpless baby in a manger.

As we continue our fortnightly pilgrimage through Mark's gospel we come to Mark 15, where six times in 32 verses we are told that Jesus is 'the king of the Jews'. Many first century Jews were certainly hoping for a king – perhaps a revolutionary or a Trump-like 'disrupter' who would restore their nation's past glory. But Jesus wasn't – and isn't – that kind of king. Instead, in Mark 15 we see that Jesus is:

(1) A silent king. Jesus acknowledges his kingship when questioned (v2) but under further questioning makes no additional reply (v5). As Handley Moule, a former Bishop of Durham, wrote: 'Jesus refused either to plead guilty or to defend himself'. Not for Jesus a constant stream of defensive (or offensive) tweets when under attack. Rather, a silence that actually spoke volumes in and of itself, resonating as it did with the ancient Jewish concept of a 'lamb' who would be 'led to the slaughter' and yet be quiet in the face of death (Isaiah 53v7).

(2) A suffering king. Emmanuel Macron, the French leader, has often been described as a 'Jupiter president' – referring to the Roman god of gods who sat aloof above the fray of regular affairs. But Jesus' style of kingship is rather different: a monarch in the mess of human existence and suffering. A king who was prepared to be mocked, tortured and demeaned.

(3) A servant king. Earlier in Mark's gospel Jesus makes it clear that he did not come to be served – unlike human rulers – but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And much of this section of Mark's gospel echoes Isaiah 53 with its depiction of a suffering servant.

So let's consign 'We three kings' to the rubbish heap. Instead, let's focus on Jesus the one true king – the unexpected king, the suffering, servant king. Let's also put in the bin our misplaced faith in human 'kings' – be they named Trump, Putin, Macron, Erdogan or Corbyn. (With the best will in the world I don't think anyone would describe Theresa May as monarchical!). Of course, this may be nothing new to you – but that doesn't mean we don't need to remember afresh.

This Roman Catholic prayer for advent says it all so beautifully: 'Almighty, everlasting God, who in your beloved Son, King of the whole world, has willed to restore all things anew; grant in your mercy that all the families of nations, rent asunder by the wound of sin, may be subjected to His most gentle rule. Who with you lives and reigns, world without end. Amen.'

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly series.

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