Friday, January 6, 2023

The First Noel

January 6 has been a fairly eventful day throughout history. In his novel Notre-Dame de Paris (translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Victor Hugo tells of the Feast of Fools on that day, when the people of Paris have a competition to see who can wear the ugliest mask. Quasimodo wins without even trying, and is crowned the Pope of Fools. In 1540, Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves (a marriage that would end in divorce). In 1759, George Washington married his wife Martha. In 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked. It is the birthday of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), John DeLorean (1925-2005, whose car company would have an important part in Back to the Future), EL Doctorow (1931-2015, whose book Ragtime would inspire a movie and a musical), Justin Welby (born 1956, current Archbishop of Canterbury), Eddie Redmayne (born 1982, British actor who played Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables, Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts movies, and Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, among others), and many others. Just two years ago, our former president provoked a terrorist attack on our Capitol in an effort to get the will of the people overturned. Several cultures celebrate Christmas Eve. 

In the Christian calendar, January 6 is Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. It closes out the Christmas season. Depending on the tradition, it's either the day or the day after the author of The Twelve Days of Christmas received twelve drummers drumming and a whole host of other gifts from their true love. It commemorates the Wise Men (a.k.a. We Three Kings) visiting Jesus and bringing their gifts. When considering what song to write about today, my first thought was "We Three Kings," but I already did that one (see the link earlier in this paragraph). "The First Noel" also mentions the magi.

The Magi Journeying
James Tissot, c. 1890
Brooklyn Museum

One thing that strikes me about the Christmas story is how God chose the most unlikely of people to receive the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. Shepherds were the lowest of the low in their culture. They were often outcasts. The Magi were foreigners, and they were likely astrologers. Aside from the magi who came from the east to visit Jesus, the only other mention of that word in the New Testament is in Acts 8, when Peter and John encountered Simon the Sorcerer. The word translated "sorcerer" is the same word, a magus (the singular of magi). They were star gazers and advisers to kings, often followers of Zoroastrianism. It just said the magi came from the east, but doesn't specify where. Traditionally, they came from Arabia, Persia and India, respectively. Wikipedia has some interesting details on what scholars believe about their possible origins and further details. The number of magi is unknown, traditionally told as three because they brought three gifts.

The first two verses of "The First Noel" concern the shepherds. The angel announced the awesome news, and the star led them to the stable. Verses 3-5 tell about the wise men, or magi. They followed the star to search for the new King. It led them northwest, until it stopped over Bethlehem. They entered the house and presented their gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. (My "We Three Kings" post details the significance of those gifts.) Verse 6 is our response. We "sing praises to our heavenly Lord, that hath made heaven and earth of nought, and with His blood mankind hath bought." There have also been other verses over the years, but that's the version we currently sing.

When did the magi visit? The past few years I have thought it was two years later. When they arrived, the Bible says they visited the house, not the stable. Herod ordered children two years and younger killed after the magi visited, which is when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt. However, my friend Mikel Del Rosario (also known as The Apologetics Guy) recently pointed out that the stable was likely in Joseph's ancestral home. It could have been as early as 40 days after the birth. People generally think of it being 2 years later because of Herod's order, but he could have just been covering his bases. We don't know precisely when they visited.

The song originated in Cornwall, England, during the 13th or 14th Centuries. It may have originated as a miracle play, ancient plays portraying biblical stories and accompanied by song. The Cornish gathered in the streets to sing it. More details on that here.

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