Christmas season continues as we prepare to celebrate the Epiphany. From Matthew’s Gospel we see a manifestation of something new to many, yet predicted by Old Testament Prophecies.
“But you (Bethlehem) Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, from you shall come for me a future ruler of Israel whose origins go back to the distant past, to the days of old.” (cf Micah 5: 1 ff)
The appearance of Magi (astrologers or wise men) from the East, seeking a king, follows a popular belief in Mesopotamia (the home of astrology in the Hellenistic world) that each person is represented by a star. Therefore, the Magi are following a star, which would rise from Jacob, an allusion to David, interpreted in a Messianic sense. (Nm 24: 17).
What is especially important here is not who the three kings were or where they came from. Our concern is about the gifts of gold, frankincense, and Myrrh. Myrrh is an aromatic resin of certain plants (sometimes balsam) used for incense. Frankincense is a gum resin, also used for incense. Both were probably very expensive and why questions arose to the use of such oils in Matthew 26: 9 (the anointing of Jesus at Bethany). “Why this waste? This could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” See also Luke 7: 36 ff (“a woman of ill-repute brought in an alabaster jar of perfumed ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus with it).”
Both cases reflect these gifts, first to the Christ child, then their eventual use on Jesus’ feet, as preparation for His burial. In the Gospel of John 19: 38 ff we see Joseph of Arimathea bringing a mixture of Myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds to use when covering the body of Jesus.
Gold is a fitting tribute to anyone, especially a king. But let’s look at this gift as a treasure from God to us. There is a story about St. Lawrence, a deacon from Rome during the third century whose ministry was to the poor. He was brought before the prefect of Rome and asked to hand over the Churches treasures. Asking for time to gather the treasures of the Church St. Lawrence rounded up the poor of the city whom he had fed and befriended and brought them to the prefect. He said; “These are the treasures of the Church.”
Putting this gospel and the Magi into perspective, remember the author of this gospel was writing to converting Jews and as it would be the Magi, Gentiles from the east, are shown early that the ministry of Jesus was not only to the Jews who rejected him, but to those who would take the kingdom of God by force; that is prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners who accepted the Messiah, first.
Where is our star and what will it portray? Have we brought our treasures to Christ? All three gifts are symbolized in each of us. Gold or our own treasures for our king, Frankincense as an offering to our priests, and Myrrh symbolic for our own death. The oil used for anointing the body of Jesus reflects the intense love God always has had for you and me. Christ came to us and paid the price for our sins. May our star symbolize all of that.
Ralph B. Hathaway, Epiphany 2020