With God’s help, adversities sometimes morph into blessings. That happened for William Chatterton Dix, who found himself sick in bed—too sick to go to work, but not sick enough to sleep all day. For a diversion, he read the scripture for the day, which turned out to be the story of the visit of the Magi (the Greek word in Matthew 2 is magoi) to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).
As Dix rested, that story kept running through his mind. He probably slept some during the day. If so, his subconscious mind kept processing that story—making it easy for Dix in his waking hours to pen the verses of this song. Before the day was over, he had completed it.
Dix was ill for an extended period of time, and wrote a number of hymns in this fashion, including the ever-popular “What Child is This?”
Interestingly for a man who wrote a hymn about outsiders (Gentiles) being brought inside the tent, Dix was somewhat an outsider himself—a layman, not a member of the clergy. However, his hymns have continued to proclaim the Gospel long after his death in 1898.
People would have thought of the Magi (magoi) as priests or wise men—possibly as astrologers. They would have been powerful men—the kind of people who would honor any home by their visit. Tertullian later called them kings, saying that they fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). Still later, people began to assume that, since there were three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), there must have been three Magi. They even gave them names—Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar—but those are not Biblical names.
The significance of the story is that the Magi were Gentiles. Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, but Matthew brings these Gentiles into the tent as honored guests very early in his Gospel—and closes his Gospel by challenging his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). That was Matthew’s way of telling his readers that God had enough love to embrace all people—not just Jews. The story of these Magi gives us a picture, writ small, of God’s great love.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan