In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and we are on the cusp of the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. Each day brings to mind a set of gifts. One is found in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a cumulative song in which each stanza is built on the previous stanzas: Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, and so on, down to three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree, the gift “my true love sent to me” on the first day of Christmas. You may have heard a pious explanation for the song suggested, that it may have served as a secret catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practicing Roman Catholicism was illegal in England. No evidence was offered for this interpretation, and the interpretations vary widely (and, as far as we know, the song originated in France). The song is, like many songs of the season, simply something meant to be festive and fun.
The other set of gifts does have a sacred origin, in that it is found in Sacred Scripture, the Holy Bible, God’s written Word, in the Holy Gospel for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Matthew 2, verse 11: “And going into the house, they [the wise men or Magi] saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” It is sometimes said that the gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child serve as an inspiration or reason for why we give Christmas gifts to one another. It’s a fine tradition, and I do enjoy participating, especially in the gift-giving, finding gifts for family and friends. [I find giving gift ideas for myself more difficult, though. My mom has said, “Don’t give me any more commentary titles!”—which pretty much kills a natural gift idea for a pastor.]
Like the gifts in the “Twelve Days” song, the gifts which the Magi brought to the young Jesus, “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” have been the subject of various interpretations. Offering sacred interpretations of these gifts has an ancient and distinguished pedigree. All the way back around A. D. 180, the early church father Irenaeus of Lyons said in his famous writing, Against Heresies (Book III):
But Matthew says that the Magi … having been led by the star into the house of Jacob to Emmanuel … showed, by these gifts which they offered, who it was that was worshipped; myrrh, because it was He who should die and be buried for the mortal human race; gold, because He was a King, “of whose kingdom is no end” [Luke 1:33]; and frankincense, because He was God, who also “was made known in Judea” [Ps 76:1], and was “declared to those who sought Him not” [Isa 65:1].
Irenaeus’ interpretation certainly inspired John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857 in composing the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” with each “king” offering a singular gift to Christ and explaining the meaning of the gift, which the fifth stanza summarizes:
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice;
Heav’n sings Hallelujah:
Hallelujah the earth replies.
Gold is a fitting gift for a king, especially for the King of kings, indicative of the riches that are His by right, riches that He laid aside for our sake, as St. Paul says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Through Moses, the LORD commanded the building of an altar for the burning of incense:
“And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it … It is most holy to the LORD” (Ex 30:7–10).
Psalm 141 likens the prayers of God’s people to incense: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before You, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (v. 2). Myrrh is used as perfume, incense, and medicine. The other Evangelists do mention myrrh in connection with Jesus’ sacrificial death for the sin of the world. Mark says, “And they offered Him wine mixed with myrrh,” intended as a painkiller, “but He did not take it” (Mk 15:23). John says that Nicodemus brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight” for Jesus’ burial (Jn 19:39).
Now, we don’t want to give in to wild imagination and flights of fancy. Matthew doesn’t give any interpretation to the gifts, nor does he say that each gift was given by one man. Rather, all three were gifts from all the Magi together. How many Magi there were the Evangelist doesn’t say, so we cannot; most likely, a company of them would have traveled together. Nor does he say that they were “kings,” but magoi, Magi, magicians or sorcerers, men who tried to interpret various signs, such as in nature, to divine the future. The Jewish priests and scribes, as well as the common people, would not have called these visitors from the East “wise men” in any sense. God had warned His people against their so-called “knowledge” and “wisdom” as wickedness, foolishness, and idolatry. That doesn’t mean that the facts they learned from observing nature were wrong or wicked; King Solomon observed nature and the creatures of God, and recorded his observations in Scripture. Scientists and naturalists still do likewise, and we benefit from the knowledge gained, sometimes in surprising ways—First Article gifts from God for which we should give Him thanks and praise, even if the discoverers may not believe in Him.
The gifts of the Magi, “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” are typical of gifts which would have been expected to be given to kings and other royal figures in ancient times. For they are rare and costly, not always easily acquired. Yet the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, the three divisions of the Old Testament Scriptures, testify of the significance of these gifts in relation to the promised Messiah. The purpose of the special anointing oil made with myrrh was to make God’s people and the things of worship holy to the LORD. The priests were anointed with it to make them holy before the LORD for offering the sacrifices—pointing to the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, our Great High Priest, who offered Himself as the final perfect Sacrifice, the only truly holy Sacrifice for sin.
In the Old Testament Reading, Isaiah encourages the promised land and the chosen people, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you … the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD” (Isa 60:1, 5d, 6de). The Prophet here describes especially the Messiah’s return in glory; yet even now, nations bring their treasures into the kingdom of the LORD, and they come bringing what they have heard go out from Zion, “good news,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the very highest “praises of the LORD”!
The Introit for Epiphany, from Psalm 45, mentions the “myrrh and aloes and cassia” that make the robes of the King fragrant. This King is no ordinary, earthly king, though, as the Psalm says to Him,
In Your majesty ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;
let Your right hand teach You awesome deeds! …
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
The scepter of Your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
with the oil of gladness beyond Your companions;
Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. (Ps 45:4, 6–8a.)
While gifts were brought to Jesus by the Magi, and our God calls upon us, His people, to bring our offerings, to return a portion of His blessings to us, the true and greatest gifts of Epiphany are not what we bring to God but what He brings to us. Oh, He certainly does command and accept our offerings, as gifts of love, exercises of our faith and faithfulness, and measures of thanksgiving. Yet we know that what He bestows is far more, and without His first giving to us, we would have nothing to give to Him in return. He is the Maker of the gold and frankincense and myrrh, and all the treasures of the earth. To the Magi He gave three gifts of knowledge of Him: first, the star, a sign from the book of nature, which He created; second, the Scriptures, His written revelation through His Holy Prophets, whom He inspired; and third, Jesus, the God-Man, God who has come to us, for us, (Immanuel, God with us,) His Self-revealing in our own flesh and likeness.
This Jesus gives you the Three Gifts that are One, whose name is given to you, poured upon you in Holy Baptism: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is the Son, so of course He gives Himself to you; and has been said before, He gives you His Father, inviting you to pray with Him, “Our Father who art in heaven”; and as He promised to the Twelve so He promises to you, “I will send to you from the Father the Spirit of Truth” (Jn 15:26). This Triune God bestows on us “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom 11:33), enabling us by His tender mercies to present ourselves, our bodies “a sacrifice living and holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). He gives the Holy Supper of His body and blood “for the forgiveness of sins,” and “where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation” (SC VI). So strengthened with these gifts, let us abide and walk in the gifts of His virtues, as St. Paul says, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three” (1 Cor 13:13a): faith, the trust in our God in Christ for our justification and our salvation; hope, the steadfastness in the certainty of our future in Him; and love, His self-giving, which by His Holy Spirit He instills in our hearts and minds. And these virtues are not delicate, for virtue means ‘manliness, excellence, goodness, strength,’ and the Apostle calls us to wear them as armor: “But since we belong to the Day”—which is Christ Jesus, the Dayspring, the Sunrise from on high (Lk 1:78)—“let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:8).
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.