There’s a story that was popular—especially a few years ago— about what it would have been like if the three wise men had been three wise women. If they had been three wise women they would have never relied on a lonely star, they wouldn’t have arrived late and they would have asked for directions. They would have cleaned the stable and they would have sent Joseph away for a break while they caught up with Mary over tea and chocolate cake.
And the gifts they would have brought—if they had been three wise women—would have been practical ones such as diapers and blankets, maybe a casserole.
It’s a cute story— a nice reimagining (midrash) of the Epiphany story we heard today from Matthew’s gospel. Epiphany lasts a long time in our church calendar, until Lent which is in March. This gives us plenty of time to figure out what we do with the gift of Christ’s birth—how we receive it—the fulness of this joy—and to then share it. Tales like this one of the wise women can help us relate, open our understanding of our own gifts, but they are helpful only as long as they enrich and don’t distract us from what is already in our gospel story.
The magi we have were probably astrologers of some kind—they watched the stars—but with an eye towards the spiritual. When they saw this star, they recognized it as for the King of the Jews—the Messiah. But they were gentiles—non-Jews—so they had to ask questions about what scripture already said about this Messiah that is born. At Jesus’ birth, prophecies are fulfilled, and the magi teach us about salvation opened to Gentiles, to all people, you and me, no longer just reserved for Jews. Their Epiphany about this infant king leads to their great joy. When they find the child they bow down, pay him homage and give him three gifts. The magi we have were wise people and their three gifts are important: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And lest the wise women who bear blankets and diapers tempt us to believe the magi’s gifts are unimportant…a wise woman from the 13th century helps, me at least, understand these gifts better.
Mechtilde of Hackeborn was a medieval mystic born around 1240 in Saxony and died around 1298. She was a Benedictine nun known for her musical ability and writing so much so as to receive a mention in Dante’s Purgatorio. Among other topics in her Book of Spiritual Grace, she wrote about these gifts gold, frankincense and myrrh. To her, these gifts are not useless at all, but rather essential to the coming of the Magi. And important, too, for us.
She reveals—these gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh are not so much about what Jesus can use or what he might have appreciated but rather about what the magi give. To make this distinction clear—the focus of these gifts is not on what is received—what the purpose of the physical gifts are— so much as the process of giving—of what and how these wise people give. To give gold, frankincense and myrrh says much about what we all strive in some way to give to God.
All three of these gifts were expensive and valuable in their time but, also, all come from the earth. They represent in some ways this mixture Christ reveals—of divine and human. These gifts represent, also, the entirety of the human person. They give to Jesus all they have: that which is worldly, that which is in them which cannot be seen, and that which is beyond all they know. Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold: is a precious, the most precious, metal. It was given at the time to kings. The magi recognized Jesus as a king and gifted accordingly. It represents the giving of the greatest material or worldly wealth we have. Gold is earthly, but of utmost value. The amount the magi gave was probably not all they had or owned—they would have owned much more than gold—They did not give that which did not matter to them, rather they gave all the earth offers them to this child who is King of the Jews. As figures of great wisdom, they would have understood the lasting value gold represents. They recognize, Mechtilde notes, that the earthly things they possess are, first of all, gifts from God. It is a gesture of that.
Frankincense: was and is used for incense. It wasn’t a common item but used especially in services to the gods—of Israel and otherwise. It represents the spiritual—that which is not seen. The magi, persons of wisdom, give over what cannot be seen—their dreams and desires, their imagination, their past, their sins and confessions. As you may know this can, at times, be even more precious to us than that which we materially possess. Our dreams and desires are part of who we are, part of what we hold close and can be difficult to let go of—much less to give over to another. Often, we think these belong to us, surely these are ours. But the magi recognize even this is a gift from the Messiah—they give even this precious gift within them to Christ. To give this is no small gesture.
Finally, they give myrrh: Oil used for anointing, particularly the dying and the dead. This gift is often interpreted as a foreshadowing of Christ’s suffering and death, but for the magi to give this to the Savior of the world signifies their own suffering and death– and the mystery of those who have died before and after along with the uncertainty and fear. This fear, this uncertainty, we can, at times, keep hidden within us, even so much as to become unaware of it. This fear can prevent us from living the life and the salvation given to us by God—by Jesus. To lay before God the mystery of death and of what we do not know that comes with and after this earthly life represents giving all we have, all we are—even that which we may not desire. What we don’t acknowledge, but is part of our life, is, if we are honest, as the magi were wise and honest, can be the most difficult part of ourselves to give. But the magi recognized Christ as the One not just safe enough, but worthy enough to receive even this gift—the one which worldly kings and most worldly people do not accept. This gift which we may not even see as gift. But Christ is the King worthy enough and trustworthy enough to receive the gift of the parts of who we are that we fear or that we do not know but, yet, give to God.
These three gifts -gold, frankincense and myrrh – represent giving all of who we are to Christ. The magi show us how to give all we are —even that which doesn’t seem so wonderful. Through their gifts they give themselves completely – their material possessions, their dreams and joys, and their fears and death.
But the magi do not just give these gifts, they “proffer” them with joy. They lay these gifts before the infant. They are compelled to offer to God everything even before they know what the Messiah will do with them. They offer these gifts with faith and with love and by doing so—by how and what they give–they are an example to us even today.
And, of course, Christ, God, receives them. It is in the giving that they are immediately received—this is not a Christmas gift exchange like we know it today—it is a giving perfectly, totally, a giving worthy of the Christ child. They are wise because they recognize they can give all that they have and are.
There is no reason why the wise women with their diapers and blankets gave anything less or more—we must look deeper in what we give to God than a practical offering to a baby. This baby is Christ and, thus, no matter what the gift—our kind gesture to someone who stands alone at the feast of light after the service, a casserole or shrimp and grits—no matter what we give we strive to give all that we have and are to Christ—not just what is safe, or nice, or practical. It is joy. Mechtild of Hackeborn wrote 900 years ago:
Behold, I give thee gold, that is to say My Divine Love;
frankincense, that is all My holiness and devotion;
finally myrrh, which is the bitterness of My Passion.
May we learn from these wise people of long ago and be reminded that we give to God—nothing less than all of ourselves and that is a joy. And God receives from us everything—gold and frankincense, casserole and blanket-but most important all of who we are. Today we celebrate, we rejoice in Christ—God entering our humanity–the source of life and light for all of us—this greatest of gifts we all share.