The Gifts of the Magi

Yesterday was Epiphany Sunday. Although the Epiphany – the 12th Day of Christmas, celebrating the wise men’s visiting the infant Jesus – technically falls on Wednesday, we celebrate it on the nearest Sunday. I love the readings from yesterday’s Mass, because they tell a real story when you compare them. Here’s what I mean:

I. Psalm 72: Gold, for the Messiah’s Kingship
The Responsorial Psalm was the prophetic Psalm 72, which begins, “Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son.” A few verses later, the Psalm promises (Psalm 72:8-10):

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

And a few verses later, Ps. 72:15 declares “And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.” Sheba is probably located in modern Yemen, southeast of Israel, and was known to be a hub for the “frankincense trail,” similar to the Silk Road in China. And the Psalm ends in a fascinating way (Ps. 72:17-19):

May his name be blessed forever; as long as the sun, may his name endure. May the tribes of the earth give blessings with his name; may all the nations regard him as favored. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wonderful deeds. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may all the earth be filled with the LORD’S glory. Amen and amen.

So the coming Messiah (either the King or the Son of the King, depending on how one interprets verse 1) is God. His name is to be used as a blessing, and the only name worth using as a blessing is that of the Lord’s, for He alone does wonderful deeds. And the coming God-Messiah will be bowed to by foreign kings, since His dominion will be global. And these foreign kings will offer him gold and prayers (Ps. 72:15). So Psalm 72 is the first piece in the puzzle, and while it hints at the fact that the Messiah is God, it’s more explicit that the coming Messiah will be Royalty worthy of gold tributes.

II. Isaiah 60: Frankincense, for the Messiah’s Godhood
Is 60:1-6 was the first reading (in the Mass, the first reading is read before the Responsorial Psalm is sung, but chronologically, Isaiah post-dates Psalm 72). In this reading we hear:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar,and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

The Isaiah prophesy is clearly related to the prophetic Psalm 72, but this prophesy includes new details. The coming Messiah will be offered frankincense. This makes it even clearer that the coming Messiah shall be God Himself, since frankincense was incense offered to God. Frankincense is one of the ingredients used in Exodus 30:34-38 to create a scent to be used only for God (excommunication from the people was the punishment for using the Holy Incense as an air freshner for your house). And we see frankinsence, by itself or in a blend, used as incense for God throughout the Old Testament – in Lev. 2:1-2, Lev. 2:14-16, Lev. 6:15, Lev. 24:7, Num. 5:15, 1 Ch. 9:29, Neh. 13:5, Neh. 13:9, Isa. 43:23, Jer. 6:20, Jer. 17:27, Jer. 41:5. It’s always used for worship of God – in Jeremiah 6:30, it’s even frankincense from Sheba being offered to God.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. It’s true, frankincense is used to worship God, just as gold is used to honor the king. But frankincense is placed upon an offering to God. For example, in Leviticus 2:14-16, the Jews were instructed to “offer crushed heads of new grain roasted in the fire,” by pouring oil and frankincense upon the offering. The priest then burnt the offerring together with the frankincense as a grain sacrifice. [Leviticus 24:7-9 uses the frankincense in a very Eucharistic way, which the KJV makes pretty apparent:

And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant.
And it shall be Aaron’s and his sons’; and they shall eat it in the holy place: for it is most holy unto him of the offerings of the LORD made by fire by a perpetual statute.

Note that this bread perpetually offered (on the Sabbath) was a memorial, but was still actually bread. It wasn’t something symbolizing bread just because it’s a memorial offering. This will become important at the Last Supper. Luke 22:19 records Jesus’ words as “This is My Body given for you; do this in remembrance of me,” and a number of Protestants have mistakenly understood this “remembrance” to mean that it’s not really Jesus’ Body. Of course, if that phrase did negate the previous one, one would think Matthew 26:26 and Mark 14:22 would have considered it important enough to record. Rather, just as Leviticus 24:7-9 is really bread, Luke 22:19 is really Body. And note what happened to that Leviticus bread: it was offered to God, and then eaten by His priests, on the Sabbath, in the Holy Place. ]

So here we have the first hints of the Passion. Jesus is being offerred frankincense both because He is God, and because He is an offering to God. But just as the Godhood of the Messiah was subtle in Psalm 72, the Victimhood of Messiah (which Jesus fulfills at both the Last Supper and on the Cross) is subtle here.

III. Matthew 2: Myrrh, for the Messiah’s Victimhood
That brings us to yesterday’s Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12. In it, as you probably know, the Magi come “from the east” (Mt. 2:1) to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star at its rising and have come to worship Him” (Mt. 2:2). This, by the way, is in Matthew’s Gospel, which is significant, since some modern scholars claim that the Synoptic Gospels present Christ merely as the Son of God, and not God Himself. Nope, Matthew 2 presents Christ as the Son of the King of Kings and the Son of God, but He’s still being given gold as a King, and frankincense as a God, and being worshipped as a God. So the Godhood and Kingship of Christ are explicitly addressed: He’s the “King of the Jews,” but He’s worthy of worship even by us Gentiles. And in Matthew 2:4, even Herod calls Him “the Christ,” or “The Messiah,” making it all the more clear that Jesus is Who those Old Testament referred to.

Matthew 2:11 tells us that upon entering the house, the Magi “saw the Child with Mary His Mother. They prostrated themselves and did Him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The first two gifts are no surprise: Gold was prophesied in Psalm 72 (and Isaiah 60) and frankincense was foretold in Isaiah 60. But this third gift is jaw-dropping. It’s myrrh.

There’s actually two purposes for myrrh. One is that it’s part of oil used to consecrate Old Testament priests. Just as Exodus 30:34-38 proscribed a frankincense blend for the Holy Incense, Exodus 30:22-30 mixes myrrh with fragrant cinnamon, fragrant cane, cassia, and olive oil to create what Exodus 30:25 calls “the sacred anointing oil.” Verses 26-29 dictate that this annointing oil was to be used to consecrate various things (“the Tent of Meeting, the ark of the Testimony, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand“) to God. Verses 30-38 describes the blend’s other use: consecrating priests:

Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests. Say to the Israelites, ‘This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come. Do not pour it on men’s bodies and do not make any oil with the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred. Whoever makes perfume like it and whoever puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from his people.’

Psalm 45:8 describes God’s robes as scented with myrrh. I’m not certain whether the Magi’s gift would be considered appropriate only to a priest or not, as myrrh (by itself) seems to have occassionally been used as a fragrance of the people. It’s a bit unclear, since the three examples we have are the pagan Xerxes’ harem (Esther 2:12), a prostitute’s bed in Proverbs 7:17, and various mentions in the metaphorical Song of Songs (which symbolizes Christ and the Church anyways). So it’s quite possible that the Magi’s gift signifies Christ as Priest, but that’s a bit unclear.

There’s another, clearer usage of myrrh, which is almost certainly the primary purpose of the Magi’s gift. The fourth verse to the Quest of the Magi (the carol popularly known as “”We Three Kings,” or “We Three Kings of Orient Are”) describes this other purpose of myrrh well:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

In other words, it’s an embalming spice. Sort of a weird gift to give a baby. It’d be like giving a tombstone at a baby shower today, or perhaps some nice embalming fluids: I’m not sure I’d expect an invite back. The Jews reading the Old Testament with a very close eye may well have expected the Messiah to be a God-King, since frankincense is fitting to God, and gold, a King. But the gift of myrrh immediately has some rather dark implications: namely, that this God-King was born to die. Of course, this is good news: the Good News, even. We don’t call it Good Friday for nothing.

Fr. Belli described the purpose of myrrh really well at yesterday’s Mass, when he said that Jesus had infant hands and feet, but that “these little Hands would grow up into big Hands, and these Feet into big Feet, and they would be pierced through on the Cross for you and me.” And after that? After Jesus was taken off of the Cross? Why, He’s embalmed with myrrh in John 19:39-40.

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