Question: After many decades of attending Mass on the feast of the Epiphany, I have heard the story of the Wise Men and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but I have never heard a good explanation of what these gifts meant. Can you illuminate this for me?
-- Name withheld, Holladay, Utah
Answer: The story of the Epiphany and the gifts of the Wise Men has been interpreted in a variety of ways over the centuries. There are probably some wrong and fanciful ways to interpret the gifts brought to the Christ Child, but there are a number of ways in which they may be interpreted appropriately.
One way to approach this story is to see ourselves in it. The Wise Men represent each one of us bringing our poor gifts to Christ so that we may receive back the eternal and superabundant riches of Christ himself. We offer our gifts to Christ, and he gives us himself in return.
There was first the gift of gold. St. Gregory the Great understood the gold in the Epiphany story to represent wisdom. The man who brought the gift of gold to Christ was, in a sense, carrying to Christ his need for wisdom. The man was, after all, an astrologer, someone associated with the search for the meaning of the mysteries of life.
The astrologer brought to Christ his own poor wisdom and Christ gave him back (representing all of us) the fullness of wisdom. The wisdom of Christ opens for us the meaning of life, and it allows us to live gracefully, intelligently and insightfully -- even if not yet perfectly. To have faith in Christ is to live by his wisdom as thankfully and faithfully as we can. We are invited to give thanks for the wisdom of the scriptures, of the Christian tradition and of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, there was the gift of frankincense. This gift is the easiest to understand. It signifies quite simply the worship of God. The astrologer laid his desire to worship God faithfully at the feet of the Christ Child.
We who are Christians know that we do not worship Christ out of our own unaided human resources. The means of true worship are given us by God in the Mass and the sacraments. So, we bring to our worship the incense of our imperfect prayers and God takes our prayers and makes them true and perfect in his sight.
The third Epiphany gift is always the most perplexing. Myrrh is, after all, funeral ointment, embalming fluid. Why should the astrologer come to Bethlehem bearing such a strange gift? Because at death, we human beings are at our most impoverished, most needy and threatened. The astrologer laid the myrrh of death at the feet of the Christ Child. And Christ gave him (representing all humankind) the gift of eternal life.
Christ took death to himself on Good Friday. He was embalmed in myrrh and laid in the tomb. On Easter Sunday, Christ rose from the dead and gave to humankind the gift of eternal life.
The spiritual myrrh we give to Christ is our own hope for eternal life, our pleading that death does not have the last word. The myrrh that Christ gives back to us is the promise of eternal life, the gift of death turned to life.
This exchange of gifts between the Wise Men and Christ is renewed in each celebration of the Eucharist. We present to Christ ordinary, perishable gifts of bread and wine (representing ourselves), and he gives them back to us as the sacrament of bread and wine consecrated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is what every Mass is about. It is dramatized for us in a colorful way in the Epiphany story.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.