The Gifts of the Magi~ by Fr. Bryan Wolf
“We three kings of the Orient are, bearing gifts as we travel so far…”
Glorious Christmas Greetings! We are now indeed within the wonder of the Church’s Christmas season. Commonly referred as “the twelve days of Christmas”, the time from Christmas Day until the Epiphany. It is thought that this was the period of time it took the Magi- the three kings (sometimes also called the three wise men), once observing the star proclaiming Jesus’ birth to travel to Bethlehem.
The story of the Magi, told in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2- tells how these three traveled from the east toward Jerusalem following the star. When King Herod had learned that these noble men were nearby, seeking “the one who has been born King of the Jews” ( Matthew 2:2 ), he summoned them under the full pretense of wanting to worship Jesus too. ( He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me so that I may go and worship him too.'” ( Matthew 2:8 ) Ultimately we know is was Herod’s murderous intent to kill Jesus and thus secure his throne. When the Magi did not return to him (… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod… ( Matthew 2:12 )) Herod furious, ordered the slaughter of all infant boys in Bethlehem under the age of two ( Matthew 2:16). ( We remember this sad day and recall the untimely loss of all children of the Day of the Holy Innocent’s December 28th.)
But what else do we know about the Magi, and what their knowledge has to to do with the meaning of Christmas?
We know they were kings from the east. East of Judea. A father of the Church, Origen of Alexandria records much significance of them in his work ‘Contra Celsum’ written in 248AD. He identifies them as Gaspar, King of India and Melchior, King of Persia and Balthazar, King of Arabia. Perhaps this is what frightened Herod, that three wise men of such position and influence would have the knowledge of birth of a new king and- more alarming to Herod, that these three kings felt an obligation to worship this new king!
The gifts presented by the three kings as they knelt before the Christ child, is even more foretelling and…. foreboding.
Gold is presented. It is befitting because the baby Jesus was born a king. King of the Jews. In the time of Jesus’ birth, only kings and the very rich and powerful- could afford to posses gold. Let alone to give it as a gift. But in doing so, the kings observe this small infant wrapped simply in swaddling blankets- as a king. Equal to their own station.
“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold we bring to crown him again. King forever, ceasing never. Over us all to reign.” ( We Three Kings. by Rev. John Hopkins Jr. (c) 1863 )
Then, to elevate and proclaim Jesus’ majesty and deity- they offer to the Christ child the gift of Frankincense. An aromatic resin tapped from the sap of Boswellia tree, or more accurately- shrubs. It had two purposes. First as a rare find and flowering plant, its sap was used in perfume of the rich and well to do. Significant of its expense and rarity, Frankincense was also burned in temples to uplift prayers to God. To present this rare fragrant spice to the baby Jesus, signified- “we know of your divinity.”
“Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity high. Prayers and praising, all men raising- worship Him, God on high.” ( We Three Kings. )
Lastly and perhaps most profoundly and subtlely, Jesus was presented Myrrh. Another aromatic resin, this is taken from the Commoiphora tree- a small thorny and prickly plant. Its sap was known to harden quickly and be glossy, so it was often used for the embalming of the wealthy deceased in those times. What a strange gift to give to a newborn child- Myrrh. What influence or insight had the Magi known? They knew to travel far from the east to seek the child born a king under the star. They foretold of his divinity. What did they know of the future plans and sacrifice of this child?
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume. Breathes a life of gathering gloom. Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying. Sealed in the stone cold tomb.” ( We Three Kings. )
All we can know now, as we ourselves march toward the Epiphany- when the glory of knowledge of the Christ child is proclaimed- is what the Magi knew then. We seek to find Christ. There is born a Messiah. A savior who is our hope and our salvation. It is in him- and through him, that we will find all that is good and necessary. Christ teaches us how to live and how to love. His lessons and words are as valuable today as they were when He first spoke them. Perhaps that is why it is said- wise men still seek him.
“Glorious now behold him arise- King and God and Sacrifice. Alleluia. Alleluia. Sing His praise to the skies! ” ( We Three Kings. )
“Star of wonder, star of night. Star with a royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding. Guide us to Thy perfect Light.” ( We Three Kings. )
May you and yours enjoy a blessed New Year. Let us go forth in the love and peace of Christ, to seek Christ. As wise men still do.