They are called kings or wise men, and Matthew in the New Testament calls them Magoi–Magi, which means magicians, soothsayers, astrologers. It’s not clear from the New Testament how many wise men came from the east to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. As stated in Matthew, the Magi followed the star they saw to Jesus, and there they knelt before the babe and presented him with three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Scholars believe that the three gifts are what accounts for later legends that there were only three of them, each bearing one of the gifts. Still later tradition makes these Magi into kings, and gives them each a name and a country of origin. Casper, King of Tarsus, who brought the gold, Melchior, the Arab King, who brought incense and Balthazar, the black King from Ethiopia, who brought the myrrh. This legend universalizes the story, bringing in figures who represent different races of people, all coming to adore this child.
But what about those three gifts? Gold, incense and myrrh? They seem strange gifts for a baby. Of course, as the writers of the New Testament believed, this was no ordinary baby. This was the long-awaited Messiah. So the three gifts were not just those three items, they were symbolic of what this child was to become. Gold, considered the purest and most valuable material, symbolized and prophesied that Jesus would be a king, a leader worthy of the highest praise. Incense was used in the worship of divinities. It was thought to be the bearer of prayers, which would drift upward to the god on a sweet cloud of smoke. And myrrh is a balm, a healing resin which is used to soothe pain. The myrrh symbolized and prophesied the suffering that Jesus was to endure, as well as the healing of our broken world that he tried in his short life to perform.
Scholars differ on how much of this story is historical. Most take it as mythical and symbolic, but let us suppose for a moment that some Magi from out of town brought these gifts to Jesus. If Jesus the infant could have spoken of these three luxurious gifts, what might he have said? Perhaps, he might use these physical gifts as a springboard to speak of the even greater preciousness of non-material gifts—gifts of the spirit. Like Paul of Tarsus, who never knew Jesus but whose life was shaped by his teachings, Jesus might have pointed to such gifts as faith, hope and love. Love is like the Magi’s gold–precious, rare, durable and of highest value. Hope is like incense, sweet and uplifting, helping us the overcome the cynicism we all prone to in this lovely but imperfect world. Faith—in the good- ness of humanity, in ourselves and in that which is greater than ourselves, is the healing balm that can ease the pain of doubt and despair, and give us the courage to help heal and soothe others.
This holiday season, as we unwrap bright colored boxes, or delight in watching our children or grandchildren do so, may we remember, amid these physical tokens of affection, the gifts of the spirit that Jesus and Paul, and other great religious leaders, spoke of and dedicated their lives to. May these be among the presents you find in your home and in your heart.