I’ve written before on just who the Magi were and where they might have been from. The truth is, we don’t know how many wise men visited Jesus nor where they came from. The traditional names Casper, Melchior and Balthazar are from the Western Church tradition; Eastern Orthodoxy and Ethiopian Christianity offer different lists of names. Were they from Persia? China? Like I said, we don’t know. They were not at the manger either, but that’s another story.
What we do know is this: we tend to think about three wise men because there were three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The significance of gold is obvious. Throughout history, from the ancient world, to the old world, to the new world, gold has been one of earth’s most precious resources. The Egyptians wore so much gold in the front, they needed a counterweight hung on their backs to keep from tipping forward. Today’s modern high-end electronics have gold circuitry and contact points. It is obvious why gold is a gift fit for a king. Frankincense may be a little lesser known to us today, but is still in use. The ancient Egyptians (King Tut), the Greek historian Herodotus, and modern perfumers and aromatherapists all use the fragrant essential oil for the same reasons. In addition Jews, Christians and Muslims all use frankincense to mark specific religious observations.
And what about myrrh? See myrrh is different. It’s a resin similar to frankincense, but offers a bitter aroma rather than a sweet one. In Biblical times its most common use was as an embalming agent. Had the women found Jesus on Sunday morning after the crucifixion, they would have anointed him with myrrh among other herbs. Gold and frankincense are obviously valuable gifts, but why offer myrrh? It also had worth, but the value we find in this gift is the literary device known as foreshadowing. Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ arrival on earth. It is a joyous time as the promise to the people of Israel is finally being realized. Myrrh reminds us, however, that Jesus’ arrival is merely the first step on a long journey to the cross. His birth is a joyous occasion indeed, but he did in fact come to die. The Magi’s gift of the bitter herb is a picture of things to come.