Matthew 2:11 – “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Upon this verse, much folk theology has been built. The story of the wise men, or magi, or astrologers, coming to visit Mary is an important part of our cultural understanding of Jesus’ birth. One thing needs to be clear, despite the beautiful song set to tune of Greensleeves, they were not kings. There isn’t really a reason to believe there were three of them. There were three different gifts, but no where does it number the men. I don’t bring this up to make any grand theological point other than to remind us of how often we read into Scripture, and how difficult it can be to unpack centuries of tradition.
Many legends, song, and art has been built around these mysterious men with their gifts. Almost all of it is speculation. The traditional interpretation of the gifts is spelled out pretty well by this Yahoo Voices article. It goes something like this:
Gold: A gift for royalty, acknowledging that Jesus was of a Royal line.
Frankincense: An expensive incense that was burned as a part of worship in The Temple. This signifies Jesus’ divinity.
Myrrh: An expensive oil used for perfume. According to this explanation, myrrh was most commonly used among wealthy Jews as an anointing oil for the dead. Thus, the myrrh is seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and a reminder of his mortality.
While this explanation fits nicely into popular modern Christian theology, I’m not sure it really has any historic merit. For instance, how would the strangers from the East have known Jewish ritual customs of the Temple? And it doesn’t say that they worshiped him as a deity. Instead, they “paid him homage.” Also, isn’t every baby mortal? Why would anyone need to be reminded that a king will someday die? According to Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope, at one time Frankincense was the most valuable commodity on earth. It was also used as an eyeliner by Egyptians. Not much symbolic value there.
I’ve never been one to go deep into this explanation. I figure it has legs enough without me. This year however, I found another explanation of the gifts.
Frankincense and myrrh have been used for medicinal purposes for over 5,000 years in places like India and Saudi Arabia. I do not pretend to know anything about their effectiveness. There are several websites that you can find with articles extolling the virtues of these ancient oils and resins. What you and I think about their effectiveness in healing though, is inconsequential. What seems clear is that men from the East might have understood these two gifts to have medicinal value.
Mary gave birth to a son. Though we often sing “Silent Night,” anyone that has been anywhere near the birth of a child knows that there is nothing silent about the experience. Giving birth is a messy and dangerous. Today a mother dies in childbirth once every two minutes. In many parts of the world, it is the most dangerous thing a woman can do. According to the Lukan account, Mary gave birth in a stable, surrounded by animals, with no midwife. She gave birth in what we would be considered, even then, deplorable conditions. I’ve written before that the unnamed miracle of Christmas is that Mary survived.
What I have not noticed before this year, is that the reason she survived might have come in the gifts presented to Jesus by the magi.
To a modern reader, the gifts of the Magi seem strange and impractical. To explain these peculiar gifts, many have placed dubious symbolic meanings on them. Instead, I feel it much more likely that these gifts were extremely practical. Notice that Matthew says that the magi “Saw the child with Mary his mother, and then knelt down…”. These gifts might have saved Mary, and indirectly Jesus himself.
We would be good to take note that Mary’s “Baby Shower” was an act of valuing the life of a woman. Though Mary gets the short end of the stick through much of the book of Matthew, this act of gift-giving is a reminder of how important a mother is to a child.
This Epiphany, my church is remembering the gifts of the Magi by having a “Baby Shower for Mary.” The youth of our church are baking cookies, brownies, and muffins. We are putting up cheesy paper decorations, and playing a few silly baby games. All have been invited to bring a gift in honor of Mary. People will bring diapers, onesies, blankets, socks, lotions, shampoos, and more. All of the gifts will be brought to the Crisis Pregnancy Center, which helps women in need. They operate a clothes closet for infants, and are in constant need of the expensive needs of a newborn.
This small act of mercy might help a mother care for her child. I’m hoping that in time, we can do more than give gifts to the Center. I’m hoping that we can develop a relationship with them, providing mentors, support, and classes. This is just a first step toward helping children and mothers in our area.
Like the Magi so long ago, we may pay homage to the newborn King by making sure his mother survives. There are other things we can do for mothers worldwide. The Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project raises awareness about the need to support international family planning and maternal health initiatives. It is an organization of which I am proud to be a part.
This Epiphany, brings gifts to the baby. Save a mother.
The Unnamed Miracle of Christmas
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Our Baby Shower for Mary invitation posted on Riverside’s facebook page: