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Bearing Gifts, We Traverse Afar

January 6, 2011

Journey of the Magi, James Tissot (1902)

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany!  The day means many things, and without wanting to spoil my sermon for tonight, I won’t be talking about many of them here, but I did want to write about one set of meanings.  The three wisemen, or the three Magi who came from the East each bore a gift for the child King, Jesus.  Where the Magi originally came from, and who they actually were is a matter of mystery, but pious legend in the West holds that they may have been wealthy astrologers and/or priests of Zoroastrianism in Persia.  The same tradition names them as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and scripture tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that the three gifts they brought were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The meaning and symbolism of these gifts is obscure, and many theories exist as to what they meant, but I would like to offer my own belief here.  I think the three gifts serve the literary function of foretelling in the Gospel story, which, when they were actually delivered, served the function of prophecy about who Jesus was and is.

Gold was of great worth and therefore worthy of a king.  Jesus was born the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and so gold symbolizes Jesus’ earthly kingship (Rev. 11:15) as well as his spiritual kingship (John 18:36).

Frankincense was a fragrant offering burned by priests in the service of God.  Giving the Holy Child a gift of incense highlighted his High Priesthood.  He is for us both Priest and Victim, as explained in great detail in the Letter to the Hebrews, but perhaps exemplified in Hebrews 5:5-6, “So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you,’ as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”

Myrrh was an ointment used for anointing, most commonly perhaps for anointing a dead body in order to prepare it for burial.  It some ways, its scent helped mask the stench of death.  What a strange gift for a child, unless, of course, it foretells the fact that this child would be a victim for His people. We remember this at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist and it is best captured (in my humble opinion) in Cranmer’s classic statement of the Anglican understanding of the sacrifice of the cross in Eucharistic Prayer I of Rite I:

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for
that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus
Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who
made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full,
perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for
the sins of the whole world;…”


So there you have it, my symbolic interpretation of the gifts of the three magi.  Each of these ideas is also sung about in the verses of the popular hymn, and one of my favorites, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  Do you have any particular Epiphany traditions that you celebrate?

The Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany

O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know thee now by faith, to thy presence, where we may behold thy glory face to face; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Fr. Ryan+

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Pete permalink
    January 6, 2011 12:05 pm

    Well, you are starting a tradition for us. Celebrating the epiphany in a mass. Too bad I’ll miss it. Send me a copy of your sermon, please. I’m glad at least that Joey will be helping you celebrate!
    P.S. The last time I had an epiphany was as part of a group of nine when all of a sudden we thought it a great idea to bring in a rookie Clergyman for an interview. We sent three wise persons bringing gifts of tastykakes, soft pretzels and a Phillies hat!

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