Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts


Scripture  Matthew 2: 1-12  

“We Three Kings of Orient are”

We just heard Matthew’s story about some wise men from the East journeying to pay homage to the baby Jesus.   And we sang again today that old carol – We three kings. Somehow, Epiphany doesn’t seem right without that carol, even though the Bible doesn’t call them kings or tell us how many came! We heard how they brought gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts to bring to a baby!

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts

Gold for a king; incense for a deity; myrrh for death.  I have sometimes wondered what a young peasant girl made of these gifts. And what happened to them after the wise men left. The gold could be useful, but what would she do with frankincense and myrrh? Not the most practical baby gifts. It makes me think of the cartoon or meme that floats around at Christmas that says that the 3 wise women came later with practical gifts: formula, diapers and casseroles for the family.

pictures of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts.
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts.

Gold – rare and pure

The value of Gold comes from its rarity and also its resistance to oxidation or tarnishing. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is recognized both as currency and as a symbol of purity and holiness. The gift of gold reminds us of the humanity of Jesus (as one of us he will need money to live) and his divinity (rare and pure like gold) 

Healing resins

Frankincense and Myrrh are not nearly as familiar to us as gold. Both are resins from trees sap and both were ingredients in the incense used in temple worship in Jerusalem. And both were known for medicinal properties. Amongst other things, Frankincense boosts immunity and soothes inflammation and Myrrh is an antibacterial. Although no one knew why, experience had shown their value in treating many illnesses.  So as well as Frankincense indicating the divinity of Christ, and Myrrh representing his sufferings and death, these gifts introduce us to Jesus the healer.

Even so, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts to bring to a baby.

Our gifts to Jesus

This may be very interesting, but what does it say to us today?  A few weeks ago, the Gospel reading was from Matthew 25 and included the words: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”. The way we can bring our gifts to Jesus is by giving our gold, frankincense and myrrh to others.  Symbolically, of course.

“Gold I bring to crown him again”

Gold (for a King) is a symbol of respect. When the Gospel writers translated into Greek Jesus’ words about loving our neighbours, when Paul penned his great hymn to love in Corinthians 13, the word they used was Agape. Not eros (sexual love), not philos (friendship or affectation) buy Agape, the word also used to describe God’s unconditional love for us.  I think Respect is about as close to a synonym as we can find for this in English.

Respect has two complimentary meanings (provided by Oxford Languages): (i) feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements; or (ii) due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. 

Respect shows Unconditional Love 

It is the second of these meanings that I am referring to here, the one that is independent of our feelings or the abilities and achievements of the other person. That brings it as close as I can come to God’s unconditional love for me, for you.

“Incense owns a deity nigh”

Incense (for a deity) is the symbol of worship. Are you familiar with the Hindu greeting Namaste? I’ve been told it means “the divine in me greets the divine in you”. Our Christian version of this when we see the face of Christ in each person we meet.  Before we can see the face of Christ in another person, we first have to see them.

Really seeing people we meet

Do we really see each person we meet?  Who checked you out last time you bought groceries? He or she probably had a name tag? Did you read it? Address the person by name? Would you recognise the cleaners at your place of work if you met them in a store? Do we really see the people who serve us in so many ways – the mailman, store clerks,  – or the homeless person we maybe toss a few coins to? Do we respect them?  

God’s image in me meets God’s image in you.

Once we see someone, then we have to look for the face of Christ, the image of God in them. We are all made in God’s image. And in all of us that image gets tarnished.  But there is good in everyone, there is the image of God in everyone. Namaste: God’s image in me meets God’s image in you. Look for it, see it – yes even in those who upset and irritate us.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

I am reminded of a story St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul”.   She writes about one particular nun who got under her skin, saying the woman irritated her no matter what she said or did.

“As I did not want to give way to my natural dislike for her, I told myself that charity should not only be a matter of feeling but should show itself in deeds. So I set myself to do for this sister just what I should have done for someone I loved most dearly,” St. Thérèse wrote.

Every time she met this nun, she prayed for her. She did things for her day after day, and when she thought she might say something unpleasant about her, she smiled instead.

“And after all this she asked me one day with a beaming face, ‘Sister Thérèse, will you please tell me what attracts you so much to me? You give me such a charming smile whenever we meet,’” St. Thérèse recalled. “Ah! It was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul who attracted me, Jesus who makes the bitterest things sweet!”

Myrrh … tells a life of gathering gloom”

Myrrh. Well, what about Myrrh? It was a spice used to embalm the dead, but it was also a spice used for healing. Everyone has their private suffering. Often, it’s not something we can see, even as we look for the face of Christ. As the saying goes, we have to walk a mile in another’s moccasins. By showing respect / agape love we give a person an invitation to open to us and share their suffering. And when we see Christ in them, we react with compassion.

Empathy and compassion

We give the gift of Myrrh when we show Empathy – when we recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.  

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – strange gifts

God, frankincense, myrrh.  Agape love or respect; recognizing Christ in the other; reacting with empathy and compassion. These are the gifts we can bring to Christ through “doing unto others”. As we start a new year, I am going to work on bringing these gifts to the world. Will you join me?