Holiday souvenirs are not the only gifts that people give and receive. When a baby is born the same usually happens. Those gifts can range from the practical (diapers, bottles, baby clothes) to the more elaborate (monitoring systems, strollers that convert to car seats and baby rockers and numerous toys!) but in the end they are all useful in one way or another even if it’s just to entertain baby while you make dinner. Not many people would think of bringing the kinds of gifts to a baby that the Wise Men brought to Jesus but Scripture tells us they brought 3 very costly gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is obvious to most of us that gold is a gift you’d bring to a king and Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Wise Men did believe the star which led them to Jesus was an indication that royalty had been born (Mt. 2:1-2). So we read of this gift and naturally pass by the other two without much thought. But here is where the “baby gifts” get interesting!
The use of essential oils has become quite popular recently but they are nothing new. They were used widely in the ancient world for much of the same reasons we use them today, most notably in perfumes and medicinal treatments. The Ebers Papyrus, a 16th c. B. C. list of medicines and recipes, includes both of the oils brought by the Wise Men to Jesus in Matthew 2- frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense was extracted from the trunk of the Boswelia tree. When the bark was cut resin would ooze out and harden into whitish beads. These were collected and processed to make the oil. Myrrh was also a plant based gum resin which was reddish in color. Its name is derived from the Semetic root word mor which means “to be bitter” because of its taste. Both of these oils were used perfumes and for incense (Ps. 45:8; Prov. 7:17; Est. 2:12; Rut. 3:3; SOS 3:6; 4:6; 2 Sam. 12:20; Ex. 30:7-8, 23, 34; Lev. 2:1-12; 6:14-18; 24:7). Once processed the oils were transported throughout the ancient world via camel caravans (Gen. 37:25; 43:11; Is. 60:6; Rev. 18:13).
Although oils were used by both rich and poor, male or female to cover over offensive odors and protect the skin from the ravages of the climate and age, frankincense and myrrh did not fall in that common use category. The regions where their sources grew (Arabia, Ethiopia, Somalia and India) made them more costly, so they along with several other oils were considered luxury items. In fact because of their value and cost, frankincense and myrrh were on equal par with gold and silver as commodities for trade and a sign of wealth (Is. 20:12-15). So it is not surprising that the Wise Men brought them along with their gold as a gift for the newborn royal the star had led them to. What is surprising in the context of this “baby gift” is that both of these oils were used to prepare bodies for burial as well (Mk. 15:23; Jn. 19:39-40). Can you imagine receiving a gift like that for your baby or even yourself? They don’t seem to be as loving and personal as the collection of gifts I have in my home. However, like the gift of gold the Wise Men brought which truly was fitting for a king (even though He was only a baby at the time) the frankincense and myrrh by both their value and purpose were fitting too in that they reflect the reason why this King was born in the first place.
In the much-cherished Christmas hymn In the Bleak Mid-winter Christina Rosetti’s poignant lyrics ask an important question, “What can I give Him?” The poetess considers the shepherds’ and Wise Men’s gifts as significant offerings but laments that she is not in a similar situation, so what can she give? The conclusion is that she can give her heart. In a commercial culture where Christmas has become a give-and-take holiday we check off a list of gifts we have to give and look forward to the ones we will get. The Wise Men remind us that the One most deserving of gifts at Christmas (and especially those of value) is the Child whose gifts signified His death. Rosetti’s poem reminds us that the best gift we can give Him in response to the gift He gave to us is our heart (Dt. 6:5; Mt. 22:37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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