In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.—Matthew 2:1–12
One reason Catholics turn to Mary for guidance is that she unerringly points us to her Son. Though she has risked everything to bring Jesus into the world, Mary is not interested in glory for herself. This episode is listed among the joys of Mary because it is a rare occasion when her Son receives the treatment due him.
Scripture tells us very little about these wise men from the East, but our tradition is rich with legends about them. Though their three gifts are mentioned, Matthew mentions no names. He does not even say that there were three wise men—this tradition developed from an assumption that three gifts must imply three givers.
The word magi seems to have originated in Persia, with the hereditary priesthood that Darius the Great established as the state religion. In fact, one of the sources of Daniel’s troubles (see the book of Daniel) was the eminence he gained under the rulers Nebuchadnezzar, Darius the Mede, and Cyrus the Persian. The prophet’s gift of interpreting dreams infringed on the duties of the Magi, who sought his downfall. Our word magic comes from this same origin and carries with it the early significance of divination, dream interpretation, and astrology.
These astrologers follow a star to Bethlehem and leave according to instructions they receive in a dream. Clearly they not only excel at these traditional skills but also have confidence enough in their abilities to follow these signs and dreams, even across great distances, even when it may seem contrary to sensible behavior.
The gifts they bring, though familiar by tradition, seem strange choices for an infant. Whenever I read this account, it calls to mind a favorite exchange from A Charlie Brown Christmas:
Lucy Van Pelt: I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.
Charlie Brown: What is it you want?
Lucy Van Pelt: Real estate.
Though gold could be argued to be eternally useful, frankincense and myrrh are another matter. What is the meaning behind these choices?
Once again, we come to the heart of why this event was cherished by Mary. These gifts are prophetic, and each corresponds to a hidden facet of Jesus’s identity.
Gold has always been an emblem of royalty. It is rare and difficult to mine and purify, making it valuable. It has a universality that other means of exchange lack—locally minted coins, say, or the salt used by the Roman army. The gift of gold is a salute to Christ’s royalty (the wise men describe him as “king of the Jews”) and the universal scope of his rule.
Frankincense was the incense offered to God at the temple—the same incense Zechariah was burning when he was visited by the angel. Though it, too, was a valuable commodity, it was more prized for this exclusive use.
When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people. (Exodus 30:37–38)
Its presence here symbolizes the divinity of Christ (frankincense was offered only to God) and his priesthood (only the priest was allowed to offer it).
Myrrh is mentioned in the Talmud as another ingredient of the incense offered in temple worship, but it does not appear in the “recipe” given by the Lord in Exodus. It was part of the holy anointing oil described in the same chapter of Exodus (verses 23–33):
The Lord spoke to Moses: Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an unqualified person shall be cut off from the people.”
So, we might read this gift of myrrh as another tribute to Jesus’s holiness. However, myrrh had other uses as well. It was used as a cure-all throughout Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and made into a salve that relieved pain when applied to the skin. If these uses had an air of foreboding, myrrh’s most common use was to anoint the dead.
Whether Mary had any sense of the trials that lay ahead for her Son is unclear—she had yet to visit the temple and hear the warning of Simeon, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And these dream-interpreting prognosticators from the East belonged to a different faith altogether. Could they have foreseen the manner in which God would redeem his people, when the greatest scholars of Judaism expected something very different?
Most Scripture scholars interpret the gifts of the Magi as tributes to Jesus’s roles as king, priest, and Savior. Mary knew her Son was special; it certainly didn’t take the opinion of outsiders to convince her. But she rejoices in the honor paid her Son, just as she cherishes our own offerings to him. Though God does not “need” our worship any more than an infant “needs” exotic spices, it is still a righteous and worthwhile practice. Prayer doesn’t change God, as the old saying goes. But if we let it, it just might change us.
Christmas is a holy day of obligation for Catholics. Behind Easter, it is the most solemn celebration of the year. While Mass was once the thing you did for Christmas, it sometimes gets shoehorned between the morning gift frenzy and dinner at Grandma’s as some trifling inconvenience. Some Protestant churches have recently adopted the fashion of being closed altogether for Christmas, so that staff and members can spend the day with family. Somehow we’ve managed to hold on to the components of this Christmas story while missing the point altogether.
There is some gift-giving here, but they are gifts given to Jesus. Joseph and Mary aren’t exchanging baubles or finding treats for the animals in the stable. And those gifts aren’t given to Jesus because he’s a baby (and Christmas is all about the children after all), but because he’s Jesus—the newborn king, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And they aren’t given to him because they’re things he might like to play with; they are symbols of the worship we are called to offer him at Mass.
There is some visiting here, too. But it’s not a jaunt across town to see Memaw and Pop-Pop and the cousins. The Magi travel from afar to see Jesus.
This Christmas, follow the example of the wise men and make Jesus the center of your attention.