The Magi and the gifts of …. Lent?

“Adoration of the Magi” (detail) by Sébastien Bourdon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What shall we give him? 


I have always been intrigued by the magi.  Their story forms the majority of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, and yet there remain so many questions about these mysterious figures. Where did they come from? How did they know to follow the star? What did they think when they found the Holy Family?

Notice that we don’t find in the Gospel account that there are three of them. Rather, we have that tradition because there are three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising…young camels of Midian and Ephah, they shall bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:3, 6).

St. Ireneaus wrote about these gifts of the magi signifying the mystery of Christ incarnate. Gold is a symbol of royalty; thus, it represents the kingship of Jesus. Frankincense is used in the worship of God, so it points to his divinity. Perhaps the strangest of baby gifts is myrrh, which was a burial ointment. It signifies the humanity of Christ, especially in his passion and death.

These gifts of the magi can provide ample content for our own prayer and meditation. Some have connected these gifts to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I would like to use them to consider what we ourselves can give the Christ Child, especially as we begin this new calendar year. 

Gold

Let’s interpret gold quite literally. The Baby Jesus might not need our money, but His people do. Almsgiving is not something we are only called to do during Lent. The Catechism reminds us that it is actually a work of justice. “Giving alms to the poor is a witness to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God” (CCC 2462).

I think a lot of people don’t like to talk about “tithing” because it sounds like God is taxing us.  It sounds greedy, perhaps, for the Church.  But I have found if I’m just told to “give,” what does that actually mean?  When the basket comes around at church, can I just throw in the money I have left in my wallet at the end of the month?  

Am I ready to give away what I have… because it’s not mine, it’s God’s?  Am I ready to really give of my “gold” as a sacrifice, and not just as an afterthought?  Now, there are many different ways to give alms. It’s not always a gift of money. When we look at the famous story of Matthew 25, when at the Last Judgment the sheep are divided from the goats and Jesus reveals all the good deeds—feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked—were done for him – that is almsgiving. 

There are many ways to show charity, and “time” and “talent” are valuable gifts that the Church needs. But could I give more treasure? How often am I afraid to give financially… afraid to let go of that widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4), because I don’t trust? Because I forget that it’s not my money… it’s God’s?

Frankincense

This gift of the Magi reminds us that this baby wasn’t just a king, but was also God.  We see in Matthew’s account that the magi worshipped Christ.  Think of the humility that took, for these grown men, perhaps affluent themselves, to get on the ground and worship a baby? 

We see incense mentioned in the Scripture in relation to prayer:

In Revelation 5:8 — And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;

And in Psalm 141:1-2 — I call upon thee, O LORD; make haste to me!
Give ear to my voice, when I call to thee!
Let my prayer rise up as incense before thee,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!

We can give the gift of frankincense to the Christ Child by our prayer.  Prayer is the primary way we encounter Christ.  It important to cultivate a life of prayer—to set aside time each day to have a conversation with the God who created you and who loves you.

The beginning of a new calendar year is a great chance to make a new resolution to get your spiritual house in order. Be reasonable in making a daily plan of life; make concrete goals for daily and weekly prayer that can be built upon later.

Myrrh

Myrrh was used as a perfume or medicine, but it was also used for embalming.  The other time we see it in the New Testament is in John 19:39, when Joseph of Arimathea brings it to embalm the body of Jesus after he’s taken down from the cross.

The third verse of We Three Kings brings out the strangeness of this baby gift:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The gift of myrrh reminds us, even in the midst of the joy of Christmas, that Jesus came to die for us.  He’s the only person in the history of the world who was born to die.

How do we give him the gift of myrrh? Through our own sacrifices and sufferings. Every day, we are called in some way to die for him. We can take on voluntary penances throughout the day, in order to unite our sufferings with us (abstaining from meat or dessert or choosing to delay some small consolation). We are also faced with involuntary penances. St. Angela of Foligno said that the penance we choose voluntarily is not half so meritorious as those which are imposed on us by the circumstances of our lives.

Begin each day with a Morning Offering, offering Jesus everything you face throughout the day. When faced with suffering or inconveniences, offer them up. Whisper a prayer, giving it to Jesus. Bite your tongue instead of complaining. Give it to Jesus and tell him you want to suffer with him.

In the liturgy, we unite our lives—our sacrifices, our joys, our mundane tasks, our greatest pleasures—with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and offer it to the Father. Our offering isn’t perfect… but Christ’s is.  The priest prays at the offertory, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts might look a little familiar: almsgiving, prayer, and penance. These are not just the acts of Lent – they are our daily gifts to our King. These ancient practices are the ways we ultimately give our hearts to Him.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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