Mystery of myrrh

Question: I have often thought of the three gifts the Wise Men brought to the child Jesus in Bethlehem: gold, frankincense and myrrh. I know that gold means something precious and frankincense means worship. I am never sure about myrrh. I read the history of myrrh on the Internet, and it said that myrrh is for embalming. Why would it have been given to Jesus?

— Mary L., San Leandro, Calif. 

Answer: The gifts the Wise Men brought to the Christ Child have been the source of endless speculation and interpretation. Like all symbols, they can have many meanings at the same time.

One appropriate interpretation is to see the gift of myrrh as a way of bringing together the two great events of the Church’s year: Easter and Christmas. Each solemnity needs the other. Christ was born into the world that he might take on and overcome the human bondage of death, and Easter has no salvific power unless it is based in Christ’s incarnation by which he took on human nature.

It is no accident that our celebration of Christ’s birth takes place in the midst of the Eucharist — the sacrament of the Lord’s death and resurrection. The oddness of this is brought out by the gift of myrrh. Giving the Christ Child the gift of myrrh brings together the realities of birth and death.

The poet T.S. Eliot put in the mouths of the Wise Men coming to Bethlehem this question: “Were we led all that way for birth or death? There was a birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”

The truth is birth and death are not very different. Our lives are framed between them, and together they affect every moment of our existence. Our lives are simultaneously marked by birth and death — each giving rise to the other.

As we grow older, we know that every true birth in human experience involves a death, and every death when faced heroically leads to new birth. Every authentic moment of human development involves death and birth, losing and finding, fearing and hoping, giving up and discovering anew.

The Magi brought to Christ their recognition that life ends in death and looking for something more. They gave their death-directed lives to Christ, and he gave to them the great gift of the Resurrection. 

Sant’Egidio Community

Question: From time to time I hear about the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome. Can you tell me more about the organization?

— Name withheld, Ogden, Utah 

Answer: The Community of Sant’Egidio was founded in 1968 in Rome at the initiative of a young man, Andrea Riccardi, who gathered around himself a group of high school students to listen to and put into effect the Gospel of Christ. The community was inspired by the communal life of the Acts of the Apostles and the example of St. Francis and the first Franciscans.

Today the community has more than 50,000 members in 70 countries. Its center remains the Church of Sant’Egidio in Rome, where members maintain a constant presence of prayer and service to the poor and to pilgrims.

The five pillars of the community are prayer, communicating the Gospel to all those who will listen, ecumenism, solidarity with the poor, and dialogue. 

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 mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.