And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
The gifts of the wise men have often led us to think that there were three of them, although we actually don’t know the number of travelers from the east, only that out of their treasures there were three things in particular that they offered the Christ child; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Neither does Matthew tell us why these gifts in particular were chosen, or indeed where they ended up, although various theories have been developed based on what we know of their use in the ancient world.
Gold is traditionally thought to represent Christ’s kingship and divinity as it was a very valuable commodity and mentioned throughout the Bible associated with both God and idols. Frankincense is thought to be a symbol of the holiness, righteousness and priestly role of Christ, as it was frequently burnt in worship, releasing a strong fragrance. The gift of myrrh is thought to foretell Christ’s suffering and affliction as He gave himself up to death on the cross, as it was often used in the embalming process. Whether the wise men were aware of these deeper meanings is unknown; the gifts were valuable items that were typically presented to honor a king or deity and could also be used for many medicinal purposes, so they may simply have been what they deemed as appropriate.
What interests me most as I reflect on this afresh is the manner in which these gifts were offered. It seems clear that the wise men were giving the very best of what they had; these were not kings in the sense that they have sometimes been portrayed and had not acquired wealth through military victories or inheritance. These were gifts that that they had likely earned over a period of time through their work studying the stars. They gave to the infant out of their own most valuable treasures, to a baby destined to become the king of another people, with no expectation of return. That is generous giving indeed. As we become embroiled in gift giving once again this Christmas we might reflect on what it is we offer God, not because we hope we might get something back, but because we know He is worthy.
Jesus, just as frankincense rose before you in ancient worship, may our prayers also be set before you like incense (Psalm 141:2). Would you find our worship of you equal to that of the wise men; may we give it wholeheartedly and without bringing our own agenda. You alone are worthy of our praise. Amen.