People have a fascination with royalty. Little girls dream of being a princess and little boys imagine being a grand knight on a white steed, defending his kingdom. If a royal wedding is happening, many of us watch it televised, even if it means getting up at 2:30 a.m. to do so. It is easy then, to understand why the Magi were equally fascinated by the news of a new king born.
People often ask, “What was with those men bringing a newborn baby gold, frankincense and myrrh?” The Magi brought gifts specific to their lifestyle, items that they, being of a royal order, were accustomed to receiving.
At that time, gold coins were used for monetary exchange. Adornments such as crowns and medallions were made from gold. A king’s standard, bearing his coat of arms, may have been forged from gold. Rich dark wines were kept in gold ewers and poured into gold cups. That particular tradition has been maintained to this day in our liturgy. Chalices are made of solid material that does not break or rust. If the entire chalice is not made of gold, the interior is usually gold plated. In your parish you may also see gold-plated candlesticks, monstrances, Communion bowls and cups.
Frankincense was familiar to most people in Jesus’ time because of its use in temple worship. However, because the hygienic practices of that time were far removed from what we use today, royalty also used frankincense as a primitive deodorant both on their person and in rooms. Frankincense oil was used medicinally for treating arthritis, healing wounds and for relief from scorpion stings. Within our liturgy we most often see (and smell) incense used to reverence the Book of the Gospel, the elements on the altar, the paschal candle, a deceased body, the presider and we ourselves in the assembly.
Likewise, the Magi would have used myrrh in a similar manner. It was used as incense and a holy oil in religious rituals and ceremonies, but myrrh also proved to be useful in maintaining healthy skin. Myrrh was used in cooking since it added a spicy flavor to food. In particular, the pungent odor of myrrh made it a favored herb for anointing and preparing the deceased for burial. Today, myrrh can be used to prepare the sacramental chrism used by many churches of both eastern and western rites. While the actual oil used for the anointing of the sick does not contain a scent, the sacred chrism does. The next time you witness a baptism or confirmation, try to get a whiff of chrism’s scent before it dissipates on the one who was anointed.
On this weekend, we again can do some special “royal watching.” Listen carefully to the familiar Gospel story. Take note also that Matthew gives no names to the Magi. Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar, as tradition has named them, are merely supporting actors in the story. They bring gifts to the King of Kings and only his name is important. This feast really is not about the magi; it’s about Jesus, revealed to us on this Epiphany day as the king who would be servant.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.