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Friday, January 3, 2020

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh - The Epiphany of the Lord

Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they 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.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.


"What can a child do with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?" Surely Mary was too polite to ask that of the magi, but more than a few people have wondered about it. These are not just curious gifts for a child. They are curious gifts to give God. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis ― a Trappist monk from Massachusetts ― makes the point that, if the magi knew Jesus was God, if they knew, as the text says, to “fall down and worship him” (Mt 2:11) then they also would have known that “there was nothing they could give him he did not already possess.” He’s God. What’s he going to do with a bit of gold? [1]

A similar situation occurred some years later when Martha’s sister poured out an entire pound of pure nard upon Jesus’ feet (Jn 12:1-8). Do you remember who complained? It was Judas. “Why was this ointment not sold and given to the poor?” Judas’ question is not far off from ours. What good is it to pour out expensive perfumes upon Jesus’ feet? What good is it to gift him treasures? Isn’t there a better use?

The Fathers of the Church understood these gifts symbolically. Jesus wasn’t supposed to do anything with the frankincense. On the contrary, it was meant to honor him. In the case of the magi, there was gold because he was a king; frankincense ― the fragrance burned during worship ― because he was God; and myrrh ― a resin used for burial ― because he was to die. 

The gifts of the magi were not meant to be used. They were meant, rather, to convey something that was happening within their hearts. Their gold, frankincense, and myrrh were meant to convey their devotion. It is the same for Martha’s sister, pouring out her prized perfume upon Jesus’ feet. When retelling this story, John remembers that “the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” He remembers that she even knelt down and “wiped [Jesus’] feet with her hair” (Jn 12:3). How gritty is that? Can she convey her devotion any more vividly? 

It is the same with our own gifts for Jesus. Probably you don’t have any myrrh for him. Probably you don’t have any nard ointment. That is not the point. Matthew’s text says that, upon seeing Jesus, the magi “opened their treasures” to reach for their gifts (Mt 2:11). That is the point. When the Christian encounters Jesus, their first move is to “open their treasures.” Their first move is to reach for their most cherished possessions and to pour them out upon the feet of Jesus, to dry it all up with their hair. 

What is your most cherished possession? Maybe it’s some material thing; maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s your family? A friendship? A memory? Some people cherish their things by guarding them. There are some things we keep hidden and buried, far away from even our own sight: past mistakes we’re not sure how to move forward from, broken relationships that don’t make sense, things we’re still angry at God about. In an odd way, these are things we treasure. These are things we can’t really look in the eye, but they are also things we refuse to let go of

Are there things you have buried away in the coffers of your heart? Things you don’t even let God see? These are precisely the things we find when, upon encountering Jesus, we “open our treasures.” These things are our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are what we can lay at his feet, what we can give him to convey our devotion. It is, in the end, the most costly thing we can give him. It is all we really have if we want to give him something precious

Recall Jesus’ response to Judas’ complaint about the perfume that could have been sold for the poor: “Let her alone…. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Give your money to the poor. Give your time and your energy to the poor. They are always with you. But give your gold, your frankincense, and your myrrh to Jesus. Give what you treasure, what you cling to, and even what you fear to Jesus. What can this child do with your gold, frankincense, and myrrh? I don’t know. But I’m certain he’ll think of something.


[1] The opening question, too, is from the lectio of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, vol. 1 (Ignatius: San Francisco: 1996), 85.