The wise men, kings from Persia
Perceived without any doubt
That Thou was born on earth, O Heavenly King.
Drawn by the light of a star, they hurried to Bethlehem.
They offered Thee acceptable gifts:
Gold, myrrh, and frankincense.
They fell down before Thee and worshipped Thee,
Seeing Thee, the timeless One,
Lying in the cave as an infant.
– An immature translation of Mashiha Jaatham Cheytha and Tharaka Porasile, two hymns sung during the service of the Nativity of Jesus.
St. Matthew tells us that wise men from the East came beating gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child. In the medieval period, the tradition developed that there were three wise men whose names were Melchior, Casper and Balthasar. They later became subjects for the Christmas song “We Three Kings”, which is often sung at Christmas tableaus and plays. Over a period of time, stories developed about the magi and their journeys. Some stories say that originally there were four wise men who came to see Jesus, however, along the way, one got lost. After many years of traveling, searching for the baby Jesus, the wise man found his way to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he heard about a man who was being crucified that day, it was Jesus.
Matthew does not specify the names of the wise men, nor does he mention that there are three, but only that wise men came from the East (Matthew 2:1-3, 10-12).
The only details we have about the wise men are that they came seeking to worship the baby Jesus and that they saw the stat in the East, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (Matthew 2:10). The fact that they are from the “east” and that they are “wise men” suggests that they are sages or astrologers from a Gentile background. In the ancient world, the sage or wise man, sometimes called a seer, was an advisor to the king or emperor. These people were the educated elite and were familiar with astrology as well as the natural sciences, literature and culture. Wise men or magi were usually connected with the royal palace.
Matthew also tells us that these wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These items may seem like strange gifts for a newborn child, but they have a specific function within the birth story and the Gospel narrative as a whole. Myrrh is very similar to a heavy perfume and was very expensive, only the wealthy could afford it. Myrrh was frequently used for preparing bodies for burial. We know from the four Gospels that the women came to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1. See also Luke 24:1 and John 19:39). In the Orthodox tradition these women are known as the myrrh bearing women.
Likewise, both gold and frankincense were also expensive materials and are frequently used in the ancient world. Gold, ofcourse, was used by the wealthy in society, and frankincense is a type of incense which was burned as a fragrant offering as we hear at every Vesper service: “I call upon Thee, O Lord; make haste to me! Give ear to my voice, when I call to Thee! Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (Psalm 141:2). The appearance of the magi at the birth story echoes an important passage in Isaiah, where he describes that all nations will come together in order to bow down and pay homage to the Lord Almighty. They will bring gold and incense to the Lord:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and Kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about, and see, they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Epaph; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. Ask the flocks of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they come in my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house. (Isaiah 60:1-7)
The appearance of the wise men remind us that this birth is unlike other births, because the child is going to be the Savior of the World: “He will be great, and He will be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His Kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Thus, the gift of salvation is announced to both the Jews, who are represented in the birth story by the shepherds in the fields, and to the Gentiles, who are represented by the magi. Both the shepherds and the magi accept the invitation to see the Christ child, and both pay homage to Him. Matthew’s birth story reminds us that the good news of salvation is offered to all peoples, or as Isaiah says, all nations. Hopefully, all nations will accept this wonderful invitation and view down to God’s beloved Son Jesus.
John Hopkins Jr’s well known carol, “We Three Kings” narrates the giving of the gifts in first person. “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.” “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.” “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The gifts were given precisely to indicate who Jesus Christ, Immanuel—“God With Us”—was and is and shall be.
Gold was given as a regal gift. It is the sign of Jesus’ kingship. Later, we would all come to realize that his Kingdom is not an earthly one, located in a geographical promised land, but that he came to rule over a fallen-but-restored-through-him re-creation, or re-capitulation of the Cosmos.
Frankincense was offered for his divinity. Early Christians often refused to pinch a bit of incense onto the charcoal for the Emperor—thereby rejecting imperial claims to divinity, and were martyred as a result. Incense is only offered to God—the main reason why we still offer it to him in every single church service, following Psalm 140/141: “Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”
Myrrh was placed at his feet to foreshadow his death on the Cross for the life of the world. Whereas every single person on the planet earth was created in order to live—the gift of God—only Jesus was born to die. And there is great and providential irony in this: we mortals were born to live and move and have our being without ceasing, but the Pre-eternal, ever-existing Word of God—he who hung the earth upon the waters—was born to hang on the cross!And following his death-by-crucifixion, he was taken down from this Tree of Life, and his body was wrapped in swaddling clothes once again, and anointed for burial with the fragrant myrrh, as was brought to him at his birth. Oh divine redemption!
Royalty, divinity, and death. These were the gifts offered as signs of the essence of Jesus Christ. As we celebrate the feast, adoring him, let us also enflesh the call of this ancient hymn and prayer:
Increase in us the talent of good deeds, that we may offer Thee fitting gifts: instead of gold, myrrh, and frankincense, we offer the service of loving hearts, praising the Giver of all good gifts who has come to be born of the virgin and child of God.
In the Ancient Christian Tradition we greet one another with a call and response:
Christ is Born!