until a month ago, i had never spent much time thinking about the gifts of the wise men. all i knew was that they represented great wealth and that we exchange gifts at christmas partially in honor of the fact that the magi brought gifts to the baby jesus. historically, the arrival of the magi was celebrated on january 6—twelfth night or epiphany (in some traditions, this was seen as the actual day of christ’s birth) and the twelve days between christmas and january 6 were festival days. so i thought i would share what i learned to celebrate twelfth night.
last month when i began preparing a lesson about the christmas story, i started exploring the connotations of the gifts the wise men brought to the infant jesus (or the toddler, as my father believes he was by the time the magi appeared). gold, frankincense, and myrrh. the only one i’ve ever understood on any level was gold, the precious metal we continue to value as a symbol of wealth and status and, when we occasionally think figuratively, purity. so i spent a little time looking up these gifts of the wise men and was struck by what i discovered.
the aromatic resin frankincense was not only used in perfumes, but also in the holy incense used during sacrificial rites. myrrh, another resinous substance, was even more valuable than frankincense—sometimes worth more than its weight in gold. like frankincense, myrrh was used not only in perfumes but also in holy incense and ointments. it was used specifically in ointments for healing and in rites of purification.
certainly these gifts brought to the baby jesus meant much more than their monetary worth. this child had come into the world as the ultimate sacrifice. the frankincense the magi brought marked christ’s willing self-sacrifice that all mankind might be cleansed of sin and live again. his ministry and atonement both brought healing beyond any that could have come through the medicinal or ritual value of myrrh. and just as myrrh represented purification, christ’s atonement promised all men and women the possibility of absolute purity.
gold is perhaps the most interesting of the three gifts the magi brought. gold was used anciently in many of the ways it is used now—not only as a marker of wealth, but also as an ornament of places and tools with cultural and religious significance. it can be easily dismissed as a relatively simple symbol of reverence, if not already dismissed as nothing but a marker of wealth. but gold presents itself throughout the bible not only as a marker of wealth and respect for things sacred, but also as a symbol of evil. the false idol the children of israel built in their weakness was a golden calf. the love of money is the root of all evil. the gold the magi brought represented not onlychrist's purity and the magi's devotion to and worship of the son of god. i believe it also represents a willingness on our part to sacrifice our own pride, our evil tendencies, our false gods so that we might instead take up the gospel of christ. when we do so, we will be motivated not by wealth or pride or evil, but by the desire for healing of our hurts and a return to purity. and we will strive to help others find that same healing and purity. these sacrifices—christ’s sacrifice of his own life and blood and our sacrifice of our pride, sin, and egocentrism and the dedication of our lives—together make peace, love, and hope possible. may the new year be full of these gifts as we do his work.