American carol - biblical images

We Three Kings is a popular carol – we all love to sing it at Christmas. But is it worth a second look, asks Thomas O’Loughlin, and some thoughtful reflection on its implicit theology?

Our identity as God’s people is formed by our common memory: this joins us to one another, and it links us to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our memory feeds our imagination so that we can see the world as a redeemed creation, animated by the Spirit. The elements of this memory come in many shapes and forms such as prayers, familiar liturgies and stories from the Scriptures; but one form – hymns – has a special place because of the way that their link between words and music etches deep images on our memories. We have just to hear a few notes and we can recall the words and the phrases lying dormant within us. John and Charles Wesley understood this aspect of our memories when they made their hymns the bearers of their spirituality, so too have modern advertisers when they link their brand’s logo with a strap-line and a particular jingle. But it is also true of Christmas carols. Popular and easy to sing, they not only convey a variety of theologies of the incarnation, but can tell us a great deal about how Christians in the past remembered the coming of the Christ. We easily dismiss carols as ‘merely folk music’ and somehow ‘less’ than the elegant hymns of the choir, and rarely do we think of them as nuggets of theology – yet they sit in the backs of our minds quietly shaping our approach to the theology of the incarnation, to Christmas, and the structures of Christian believing.

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