In traditional Catholic -- and most Christian -- stories of Jesus Christ's birth, the child Jesus is visited by three people alternately referred to as wise men, kings or, as the New Testament Gospel of Matthew describes them, the magi. The gifts which the magi bring to Jesus are consistently described as gold, frankincense and myrrh. These three gifts were valuable items traditionally offered to a god in ancient times and symbolize the magi's beliefs about the Christ child's identity and his future.
Identity of The Magi
Magi is derived from the Greek word "magoi," which can have four different meanings. Magoi can refer to priestly men of Persia; men who have occult powers and knowledge of astrology; magicians; or charlatans. Matthew indicates in his Gospel that the Magi came from the East and were guided by a star. Balaam, an Old Testament prophet, had revealed that the Messiah's arrival would be marked by a bright star. With this information, it's likely the magi were Persian priests, educated in astrology and astronomy, who interpreted the star's appearance as a sign of Christ's birth.
Fit For a King
From ancient times, gold has been associated with rarity and royalty. Because of its endurance, gold also became associated with immortality. In the time of Jesus gold was an essential gift for a king or deity. The magi's gift of gold symbolizes their acknowledgement of Jesus as a king whose kingdom cannot be destroyed by earthly powers. As Christianity evolved, so too did the description of the magi. In the seventh century, a work attributed to St. Bede known as the Excerpta et Collectanea indicated the gift of gold was presented by Melchior, a bearded, elderly man.
To Honor a Priest
Frankincense, also known as olibanum, was also considered precious. The plant-derived, resin-like substance was used for medicinal purposes and in incense. Frankincense was not native to Israel and was expensive to import, but was a logical gift to be borne by a visitor from the east to Jerusalem where it was used in ritual by the temple elders. In presenting frankincense to Jesus, the magi recognized Jesus's role as a priest. The priest-astrologer bearing frankincense was described by St. Bede as young, beardless and of ruddy complexion.
The Consolation of Myrrh
Myrrh was, in Jesus's time, more valuable than gold. It is obtained from trees which grow in southern Arabia and other parts of the African continent. Its ancient use was as an analgesic and an embalming element. Myrrh symbolized pain, death and the afterlife. As a gift of the magi, it foretold of Jesus's suffering and death. Jesus was offered myrrh with wine to soothe him during the crucifixion. Myrrh also was used to anoint his body after his death. The figure associated with offering myrrh to the Christ child is Balthasar, who St. Bede described as black-skinned and heavily bearded.
- Biblicalarcheology.org: Bible History Daily: Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?
- CatholicHerald.com: Straight Answers: Who Were the Magi?; Fr. William Saunders
- Catholic.net: The Wise Men
- History.com: A Wise Man's Cure: Frankincense and Myrrh
- Episcopal Diocese of Washington: Gifts of The Magi
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