I can think of more practical gifts for a baby born in a stable than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some blankets, maybe? A layette or some diapers? How about a house the Holy Family wouldn’t have to share with animals? But the wise men were wise enough to see the bigger picture.
To discover the meaning of their expensive gifts, it’s a good idea to learn about the men who gave them. The Western Church has recognized the Magi as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar since the seventh century. St. Bede most likely wrote this description of them:
The Magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard … who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned … honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar … by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.
St Irenaeus wrote that the gifts of the Magi were given to Christ for his offices associated with redemption. The gold was for Christ as King, the frankincense as a symbol of His Deity and the myrrh burial ointment as a symbol of death for the Suffering Redeemer. On another level, St. Irenaeus said the gold signifies virtue; the frankincense, prayer; and the myrrh, suffering.
Church Father Origen wrote of the gifts: “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”
In the ancient world it was protocol to bring gifts to a king or to the object of worship. In 243 BC, a Syrian king offered gold, frankincense and myrrh to the god Apollo. The queen of Sheba brought Solomon gold, spices and precious stones in I Kings 10:2, and Ps. 72 and Is. 60 also speak of bringing gifts to a king.
The gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God, wrote St. John Chrysostom, comparing them to the traditional Jewish animal offerings. For this reason, the saint believed that the wise men worshiped Jesus as God.
Others assert that the gifts were just Oriental custom and may not have had special meaning. While some say there were three gifts because there were three Magi, Dr. Peter Kreeft finds significance in the number three:
Three wise men, three gifts, three offices (prophet, priest and king), three parts of the human soul (intellect, heart and will) because the Inventor and Designer of man is three. The medieval mind saw Trinitarian echoes everywhere, for a very good reason: Everything is made by the Trinity, and what is made must reflect its Maker.
It is the season for gift-giving, so I considered what gifts I’m bringing to the Baby Jesus. Gold is pretty much out of the question, although I can offer a little cash. Frankincense apparently is in short supply worldwide as the trees the resin is derived from are dying in Ethiopia. I don’t think myrrh would be very easy to come by, either.
A Russian Orthodox church offered some ideas for preparing our own gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
- While gold is the most precious metal, King David said that God’s Word is more precious and desirable. So if we study the bible and meditate on it, we give God a gift more precious than gold.
- The fragrance of frankincense rises to God, serving as a gift of thanksgiving pleasing to God. If we bring God our gift of thanksgiving, as it says in the Psalms, it would please God more than frankincense.
- Myrrh is oil containing the aromatic sap of a tree with which kings and high priests were anointed. The word myrrh means bitterness or sorrow. We can bring our own myrrh–sorrow and remorse for our sins–to the Lord.
St. Basil the Great also suggested following the Magi’s lead by offering gifts to God: “Let there be no one without a gift to offer, no one without gratitude as we celebrate the salvation of the world, the birthday of the human race.”