In my early understanding of where the gift-giving theme of Christmas originated, it was in the wise men giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus at His birth. No one ever told me this; I just assumed that’s why we give gifts to each other because these wise men gave gifts to Jesus on Christmas Day. Of course, I came to learn that Jesus most likely was not born on December 25th, 0 AD, but in my mind I still thought we buy presents for each other every year because of those wise men. After Scott Lamb had mentioned in his message last week that these were gifts given to kings for burial, it changed the way I approach Jesus’ birth – and, by extension, the Christmas narrative we’ve grown up hearing.
For one thing, Scripture doesn’t say how many wise men came to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; Matthew 2:2 says, “[B]ehold, wise men (magi) from the east came to Jerusalem.” For another, they didn’t come to Jesus in the manger; Matthew 2:11 says, “And going into the house they saw the child… and worshiped him.” I point these two pieces out in the effort to understand the actual event of Jesus’ birth by separating it from the traditional story we’ve heard to understand the significance of giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not to say that our traditional story isn’t moving; but to say that it might not depict what the Scriptures intend. Traditional stories are good, but they should never trump the Scriptures.
Having removed some of the common things we’ve believed (at least heard) about the birth of Jesus, we’re able to see why gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given (and why Matthew included them in the story). But first, what are they? Hopefully everyone knows what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh? According to the footnotes of my ESV Study Bible: “Frankincense is resin used ceremonially for the only incense permitted on the altar,” (note for Matt. 2:11). Wikipedia’s article points out that it was incense accompanying the meat-offerings, which were for when someone sinned. Similarly, myrrh is also incense used for ceremonial purposes in the Temple. Wikipedia’s article points out that the ancient Egyptians used it to embalm their mummies. These were gifts given to Jesus.
Gold, as we all know, has been used quite a bit as currency (ex. Every U.S. dollar is backed by gold… supposedly). But in antiquity it was also a gift given to deceased royalty. Ancient Egyptians, as we were taught in school (hopefully), also laid gold with their deceased Pharaohs. Pre-Christianized Anglo-Saxons laid jewelry with their deceased kings (or royalty) as well. Note, though, that while these were common gifts at a King’s death, it was a gift given to the infant Jesus.
Apart from what 21st Century consumerist ideologies might have us believe, these gifts given to Jesus weren’t so that he could have an enjoyable childhood. They weren’t toys he could play with (like Legos were given to me when I was younger – though I wish I still received them now…). They were laid at his feet to signify the life ahead of him; a life culminating in atoning, sacrificial death. What these gifts meant to Jesus’ parents (and to anyone reading Matthew) was that Jesus was a King born to die. His life and Kingship walked hand in hand with his long-foreshadowed death.
I do not mean to cast a dreary cloud over such a cheerful holiday, but to point out exactly why we celebrate Jesus’ birth: God becoming as we are to die as we should so we might live as He does. Forever.
A thrill of hope, as the song goes, causes the weary soul – fatigued by pain and sorrow in this world – to rejoice. No longer will we have to bury our children or grow up without parents. Because of Christmas (not December 25th, but the birthing of Jesus), we will no longer be childless parents, orphans, widows, or homeless; for we will be with Jesus, having something greater than the needed and wanted things of this world.
I wish everyone a very merry Christmas. And God bless.
P.S. If I were you, I’d return the gold, frankincense, and myrrh you bought that special someone for Christmas. Might send the wrong message and it’s not too late…