Gold, frankincense and myrrh are not the most child-friendly gifts, but they do foreshadow the ministry of Jesus. Gold represents his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming.
Gold was the metal of kings and even to this day is a symbol of prestige, longevity and purity. Jesus is Son of God, the spotless lamb. Through his coming, humankind is given the promise of eternal life, a gift that will never grow old.
Frankincense is a white resin or gum, carrying a heavy scent and comes from a type of Boswellia tree from Africa. It is highly fragrant when burned and was used to make the holy oil for the priests (Ex 30:34-38). This fragrant incense compound was carried in a censor and burned morning and evening in the temple. The gift of frankincense to the Christ child was symbolic of his willingness to become a sacrifice, wholly giving himself up. Every word he spoke, every act he committed, every miracle he performed, was a testament to us of the goodness of the Father.
Myrrh was a product of Arabia. It was a highly fragrant spice, and it had many uses as medicine, preservative and perfume, and was used in embalming. It was also sometimes mingled with wine to form a narcotic type of drink to numb pain. One account of the crucifixion recounts that Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh, which he rejected (Mk 15:23). Scripture also notes that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes to use on the linens in which they wrapped Jesus for burial. The myrrh presented to the infant Jesus symbolized bitterness, suffering and affliction and it prefigured that the baby Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man and would pay the ultimate price when he gave his life on the cross.
This weekend Nativity sets will most likely contain figures of the Three Kings. What do we really know about them?
First we assume there were three of them since three gifts are mentioned. St. Matthew says only that these visitors came from “the east.” Scholars have speculated that they came from Persia, Arabia or even India. Since the eighth century, folk tradition maintains that one Semitic, one European, one African; one young, one middle-aged, one old; by name Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
Although we refer to them as kings most likely they were not. They were Magi, an order of ancient priests, scholars, astrologers and interpreters of dreams. Interestingly, they were also the government officials who had the authority to elect kings.
Scripture also leads us to believe that the Magi did not arrive at Bethlehem at the time of the Nativity, but rather when Jesus was older, perhaps around the age of one. In reading Matthew’s Gospel, we see that it say says the Magi entered a house (2:11).
In the end, there is really only one thing we know for sure, the Three Kings are merely supporting actors. They invite us to follow the true star, the King of Kings. Epiphany is not about the Magi, it’s about Jesus, come among us.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.