On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three French hens…
There are only two times that a hen is mentioned in the Bible, and it is in the same context, in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, when Jesus laments over Jerusalem shortly before his crucifixion:
Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:33-34 NKJV).
Notice that Jesus laments over Jerusalem because the Israelites would not let him gather them together and cover them with his wings of protection. This is also referenced in Luke 19:41, at the time of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city:
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41-42 NKJV).
These are three laments, or the three hens, of Jesus weeping over Israel’s lost opportunity to receive their Messiah when he was among them, because they rejected him and did not recognize the time of their visitation (Luke 19:44).
Because Jesus refers to himself as wanting to protect God’s people as a hen protects her chicks, we are reminded of the protective, parenting aspect of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – the triune nature of the Godhead – in the three hens in the carol.
And because of course the song is sung at Christmas time, we can recognize the three wise visitors from the east – the three magi – and their gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh, arriving on the backs of camels, hidden in the carol’s imagery.
Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!
They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh (Matthew 2:9-11 MSG).