The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the Magi, or wise men from the East, visiting the Christ child and bringing Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Upon first hearing this, one has to shake his head and think, “Odd gifts for a newborn.” In fact, I once saw a plaque that said if the three wise men would have been three wise women, they would have “asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts.” Although the plaque was comical, and probably true on many points, particularly the casserole comment -and I imagine it would have been Shepherd’s Pie- the gifts of the Magi were absolutely perfect for the newborn before them; for, they showed the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. (Nm 24:14; Ps 72:10-11; Is 60:6)
Frankincense, a plant resin, was used to make incense and myrrh, an ointment made from a plant resin, was used to prepare the bodies of the dead for burial. Gold was the sign of the wealth of a king. So how are these three gifts appropriate gifts for a newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes? Well, if that newborn is God Incarnate, then what better gifts than frankincense to represent the prayers made to Him, myrrh to remind us of the salvation He won for us on the cross, and gold to always keep before us that this most humble of creatures, a helpless newborn, is the King of kings?
During the Epiphany, or “the manifestation”, Christ appeared as God-with-us to the Magi. Today, He also appears to us and we, just like the Magi, can give Him our gifts as well; we can give Him our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Perhaps our gold is the relationships we hold dear to us, the joys of our lives, the loves. Our frankincense may be our prayers, our supplications, our thanksgivings that we lay before Him, and our myrrh, representative of our sufferings, our pains, our troubles and hurts… our deaths unto self that we face on this journey. We can bring all these gifts to the alter as we go forward and receive the greatest gift of all, the source and summit of our faith, the Eucharist.
As we celebrate Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, may we be ever mindful of our need to recognize Christ’s presence with us and how we can give back, and may we adore our Lord through prayer, worship and self-sacrificing good works. These are three really good and practical gifts… for wise men and wise women alike.
Cool Fact #1: Magi is plural for Magus, meaning a member of the priestly caste of Persia
Cool Fact #2: Since the seventh century in the Western Church, the Magi have been identified as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar
Cool Fact #3: Balthasar was on the list of top ten baby names for boys in 2010… no, not really true… not at all, but who knows, maybe we could bring it back.