History of Hymns: “Carol of the Epiphany”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Carol of the Epiphany"
John Bell
The Faith We Sing, No. 2094

John Bell

“I sought him dressed in finest clothes,
where money talks and status grows;
but power and wealth he never chose:
it seemed he lived in poverty.”*


Epiphany is a time when we recall those events in the life of Christ that demonstrated he was the Son of God. It is also a time of light—the light that guided the Magi to the Christ Child and of Christ himself as the “Light of the World” (John 8:12; 9:5). 

John Bell (b. 1949) has turned the story of the Magi on end in his “Carol of the Epiphany.” Just as traditionally three Magi travel to see the Christ Child, his hymn incorporates three voices. Reminiscent in structure of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (The UM Hymnal, 254), this hymn has three characters seeking Christ. 

Mr. Bell’s hymns are known for their use of common language and for a direct, unvarnished approach to the gospel. He approaches the Christmas and Epiphany narratives through the lens of justice, and his candid hymns often place the singer in the middle of the story as an actor. Such is the case here. 

In stanza one, cited above, the singer looks for Christ in the opulent places of society, but find that Christ “lived in poverty.” In the second stanza, another voice seeks Christ in safe and secure places, but finds that “he lived in jeopardy.” A third voice inquires about Christ in popular places where “spotlights glare” and famous people may be found, but discovers that “he lived in obscurity.” 

All three voices sing together in the fourth stanza. Rather than finding Christ among the rich, the safe and the famous, they find him among the poor who “could no gifts afford.” 

Mr. Bell grew up in Kilmarnock, a rural town south of Glasgow. He received degrees in music, English and theology from the University in Glasgow. 

Upon graduation from Trinity College in 1974, he was ordained in the Church of Scotland and left for Amsterdam to work with English-speaking churches for two years. He returned to Glasgow to do youth work for a presbytery of the Church of Scotland. 

After organizing youth ministry for about five years, Mr. Bell became a member of the Iona Community in 1980, saying it was “a place where the potentials of the socially marginalized as well as the socially successful would be attested.” 

He developed a core of volunteers that planned end-of-the-month youth workshops, bringing together young people for fellowship, reflection and worship. This led to the formation of the Wild Goose Worship Group, a group of people who met nearly weekly for many years to plan liturgies and compose songs, and the Wild Goose Resource Group, four people on the staff of the Community who published a wide variety of resources for worship. 

Today, Mr. Bell continues to travel extensively, leading conferences and meeting with Christians as a source of spiritual encouragement and liturgical creativity. Though his primary vocation is that of preacher and teacher, he spends over half his time in music and liturgy, both at conferences and in small parishes, and his work takes him frequently to Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. 

His many resources may be found at www.giamusic.com.

In this unusual hymn, the congregation listens to the three voices for four stanzas, reflecting on the unusual perspective of the singers who are a part of this narrative. Not until the fifth stanza is the congregation invited to sing; they become a part of the story. 

Despite our plans to find the Christ Child among the rich, safe and famous, we found him “among the poorest of the land.” 

In what may be one of the most profound metaphors for the Incarnation, Mr. Bell closes the hymn with a most memorable and moving phrase: “We touched God in a baby’s hand.”
 

*© 1992 WGRG The Iona Community (Scotland), administered by GIA Publications, Inc. www.giamusic.com. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns, Epiphany