“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

Three Wise Men by Tamas Galambos
Painting by Tamas Galambos (Hungarian, 1939–)

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

When that our gentle Lord was born
And cradled in the hay,
There rode three wise men from the east—
Three rich wise men were they—
And in the starry night they came
Their homage gifts to pay.

They got them down from camel-back,
The cattle shed before,
And in the darkness vainly sought
A great latch on the door.
“Ho! this is strange,” quoth Balthazar,
“Aye, strange,” quoth Melchior.

Quoth Gaspar, “I can find no hasp;
Well hidden is the lock”;
“The door,” quoth Melchior, “is stout
And fast, our skill to mock”;
Quoth Balthazar, “The little King
Might wake, we dare not knock.”

The three wise men, they sat them down
To wait for morning dawn;
The cunning wards of that old door
They thought and marveled on;
Quoth they, “No gate in all the East
Hath bar-bolts tighter drawn.”

Anon there came a little lad
With lambskins for the King;
He had no key, he raised no latch,
He touched no hidden spring,
But gently pushed the silent door
And open it gan swing.

“A miracle! a miracle!”
Cried out the wise men three;
“A little child hath solved the locks
That could not opened be.”
In wonder spake the shepherd lad:
“It hath no locks,” quoth he.

This poem was originally published in Rune and Rann by George M. P. Baird (Pittsburgh, PA: Al­dine Press, 1916) and is now in the public domain.

Three Kings Day (Artful Devotion)

Christmas isn’t over yet, so I hope you’re still celebrating! As has been the case for centuries, many Christians spread their holiday festivities over twelve days, from December 25 to January 5, followed by the culminating feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the Christ child and thus God’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. In Spanish-speaking countries and communities, it’s commonly known as Three Kings Day. This year it just so happens to fall on a Sunday.

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Three Kings by Juan Cartagena
Juan Cartagena, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, 19th century. Painted wooden bulto. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” . . .

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

—Matthew 2:1–2, 9–11

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SONG: “Décimas De Nacimiento” (Décimas of the Nativity) by Pedro Flores | Recorded by Los Jíbaros, 1935, with vocals by Vilar and Pedro Dávila (aka Davilita) | Reissued on Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, 2004

 

Los Jíbaros, also known as the Cuarteto Flores, were a popular and influential Puerto Rican group founded in New York in 1930 by Pedro Flores. Their name refers to the peasant farmers of Puerto Rico, who developed a style of mountain music, jibaro music, that’s rooted in music brought to the island by early settlers from Andalusia and Extremadura in southern and western Spain during the seventeenth century.

The jibaro song “Décimas De Nacimiento” is an aguinaldo (Christmas carol; literally “gift”) that comprises four décimas (ten-line stanzas) performed in dialogue. In this traditional poetic form, each line contains eight syllables and follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAAB—but here the poet has adapted the scheme to ABBAACCDDC. The two singers perform to an accompaniment of three guitars and a guiro (scratch gourd).

En un pesebre nacio
A eso de la medianoche
Un niño que sin reproche
Clamaron hijo de Dios
Una estrella iluminó
El sitio donde María
Tenía en brazos al Mesías
Que acaba de nacer
Al que empezaban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Los tres magos soberanos
De los reinos del Oriente
Vinieron muy diligentes
A ofrendar su Dios cristiano
Y todo el mundo pagano
Recuerda las profecías
Pues sabian que nacería
Pronto el hijo de Israel
Y que lo iban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Todas las aves cantaban
Olian todas las flores
Bonita luz y colores
Las astros del cielo daban
Los buenos sabios oraban
Los réprobos se escondian
En las pajas ya había
Nacido el niño sonriente
Se postró un mundo creyente
Al amanecer del día

Y a través de las edades
Recordando al soberano
El universo cristiano
Celebra las navidades
Dice así, felicidades
El humano se extasía
Y aún pedimos al Mesías
Hijo de María y José
Que algo de su gracia nos dé
Al amenecer del día

He was born in a manger
About midnight
An innocent child
Proclaimed the Son of God
A star shone upon
The place where Mary
Held our Savior in her arms
Who had just been born
They beheld him
At daybreak

The three wise men
From the Orient
Promptly came
To offer gifts to the Son of God
And all the pagan world
Remembered the prophecies
That foretold the birth
Of the Son of Israel
And they came to see Him
At daybreak

All the birds were singing
All the flowers were perfumed
Stars in the sky were shedding
Beautiful light and colors
The wise men were praying
The scoundrels were hiding
Already, in the straw
The smiling child had been born
Everyone fell to their knees
At daybreak

Throughout the ages
In memory of our Sovereign
The Christian universe
Celebrates His birth
With good wishes
Humanity is ecstatic
And we still pray for the Messiah
Son of Mary and Joseph
To shed His grace upon us
At daybreak

This is one of many songs that might be heard at a parranda, a Puerto Rican caroling party that moves from house to house, lasting from around 10 p.m. to dawn on any given night of Christmas. The repertoire is a mix of sacred and secular songs, but unlike in the continental US, they are all festive and upbeat. As the carolers progress to each new stop, the head of that house invites them in for food and beverages. Parrandas are one of the leading social activities of the Christmas season on the island.

“Décimas De Nacimiento” was originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl in the 1930s. In 2004 it was reissued by Dust-to-Digital on a compilation Christmas album produced by folk music preservationist Lance Ledbetter and musicologist Dick Spottswood; there it appears alongside other rare recordings of American gospel, blues, and hillbilly music from the twenties and thirties.

Another vintage recording of the song, by Trio Armonico, can be found on The Music of Puerto Rico: Recordings 1929–1947, released in 2009 by Black Round Records. [Listen on Spotify]

(Related posts: “Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain”; “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

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Celebrated annually on January 6, El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or simply Three Kings Day, is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar—so much so that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, that means “to celebrate Three Kings Day.” On the eve of the holiday, children put a shoebox filled with straw under their beds for the animal transports, be they camels or horses, of the Three Kings, who visit their homes with presents between midnight and dawn. Children awake not only to gifts but also to a day of parades and feasting with family and friends. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, and free gifts, but the highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town. They start from their unofficial hometown of Juana Díaz in the south and travel around the island, stopping to celebrate in various localities—but no celebration is larger than that in Old San Juan.

(Listen to composer, playwright, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda describe how he grew up celebrating Three Kings Day in New York City in this video from 2017.)

Three Kings bulto
Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, late 19th century. Painted wooden bulto by a member of the Rivera family. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Not surprisingly, the Three Kings are among the most popular santos (handmade images of saints and other religious figures) in Puerto Rico. Since camels were unknown to earlier local santeros (makers of religious images), the Three Kings are typically shown riding Paso Fino horses. The gifts they bear may be the three traditional ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or typical Puerto Rican gifts, such as musical instruments. In Puerto Rico, Melchior is shown with dark skin, and he is often given special prominence, especially by santeros of African descent.

The two bultos (small religious carvings) pictured above were gifted to the Smithsonian, along with 3,200-plus other objects, by Puerto Rican folk art collector Teodoro Vidal. Learn more about the Vidal Collection at https://amhistory.si.edu/vidal/. (You may remember me speaking about another bulto donated by Vidal, Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia, in my Stations of the Cross audio guide.)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ

Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.

On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)

In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).

In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.

Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

. . .

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.

They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.

Baptism of Christ by Jerzy Nowosielski
Jerzy Nowosielski (Polish, 1923–2011), The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan, 1964. Oil on canvas, 100 × 80 cm.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Leśko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ. Oil on board, 40 × 30 cm. Private collection.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ, 2014. Oil on board, 40 × 40 cm.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Two-sided processional cross and ripidions by Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), 2011. Mixed media on wood. Cross: 90 cm tall (without shaft); ripidions: 13 cm diameter. Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Górowo Iławeckie, Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, Poland. (See reverse)
Baptism of Christ by Lyuba Yatskiv
Icon by Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–)
Baptism of Christ by Ulyana Tomkeyvch
Icon by Ulyana Tomkevych (Ukrainian, 1981–)
Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

Continue reading “Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ”

“And nations shall come to your light . . .” (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Christ Child (India, 17th c)
Adoration of the Christ Child, Mughal India, ca. 1630. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 15.6 × 11 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

This Saturday, January 6, marks Epiphany, a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of God incarnate to the peoples of the world, encapsulated in the visit of the Magi to the newborn Christ. In the first lectionary reading I’ve excerpted, Isaiah speaks to Israel, rejoicing that God will one day cause his light of revelation to shine upon them, drawing the nations—a prophecy fulfilled at Christmas; in the second, Paul writes to the church at Ephesus about the glorious expansion of God’s family made possible through Christ, and the unity experienced therein across barriers of race, culture, geography, and so on:

And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising. . . .

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of nations shall come to you. . . .
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.

—Isaiah 60:3, 5–6

The mystery of Christ . . . was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed. . . . This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

—Ephesians 3:4–5

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SONG: “Miladuka” (“Thy Nativity”) | Arabic Christmas hymn arranged by David Düsing | Performed by the Robert DeCormier Singers & Ensemble, feat. Sandra Arida, on Children Go Where I Send Thee: A Christmas Celebration Around the World (1996)

“Miladuka” is a Christmas troparion, or liturgical hymn, from the Byzantine church. Its English translation, from the CD liner notes, is as follows:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world.
For they that worshipped the stars did learn therefrom to worship thee,
O son of justice,
And to know from the east of the highest
Thou didst come.
O Lord, glory to thee.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle B, click here.