The gifts tell the whole Gospel story

By Fr. Jack Treloar, SJ | For The Compass | January 2, 2020

After doing the child Jesus homage, the Magi “opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Often, when one visits someone of importance, one has an impulse to give a gift acknowledging the prestige of the person they are visiting. In this context the visitor always wants to present a gift with special meaning for the person they visit. The Magi’s gifts have special meanings. Gold symbolizes royalty. Frankincense indicates divinity. Myrrh, a spice used for burial, points to death. Even at this early stage the Gospel signals three fundamental characteristics of the child they are visiting. Jesus comes from David’s royal lineage. His ultimate origin as God’s son shows forth his divinity. He will die and be buried with myrrh and aloes.

The feast of Epiphany gives Christians an opportunity to reflect on the deep meaning of this child who has come into the world. Matthew’s gospel takes care to establish Jesus’ royal lineage. Since Matthew was writing for a largely Jewish audience it was important to establish that Jesus comes from royalty. In Matthew Chapter 1 the long genealogy makes the point that Jesus is from David’s line as was predicted in 2 Samuel 7:12-13. The Magi knew of this prophecy and presented him with gold, a gift befitting a king.

Jesus, however, is more than a king. He is also divine. Matthew also points this out in Chapter 1 when he recounts the dream given to Joseph. The angel tells Joseph that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her (Mt. 1:20). Since the Magi followed the miraculous star, they understood the divinity of the child. To acknowledge his divinity they give him frankincense, the spice of divinity.

Finally, they present the child the spice that signifies death. Even at this early stage of the Gospel account we find a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate destiny of death and burial. After he is taken from the cross his body is prepared by wrapping it in fine linen with a mixture of myrrh and aloes (See Jn 20:39).

Each gift the Magi present has a deep theological meaning. When we look carefully at these meanings we realize that together they give us the whole Gospel story from the conception of Jesus as royalty to the confession of his divinity, and to the death he will suffer for the world’s salvation. These gifts, although splendid in themselves, tell us what is important about this child. He is king. He is divine. He will die for us. Jesus not only receives symbolic gifts from the Magi; he is the Father’s exceptional gift to us.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.

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