They came from far far away, possibly from what we now know as Iran – it was Persia then, though another ancient tradition has it that Balthasar came from Arabia, Melchior from Persia and Casper from India. In the end, we don’t really know. This is one of those stories in the bible that have accumulated layers and layers of tradition and we have to work quite hard to get through the barnacles to find the story and what it means for u now. We do not know the number of their company, nor their names, nor the difficulties of their journey – though many people have tried to imagine what it might have been like. Everybody tells the story in their own way, and that’s fine – it becomes the story of how we each came to find the child in the manger and saw something, someone, truly amazing, which gave us hope and courage. If you made that journey from far away to find a baby born to be king, how would you travel? How far would you go? What gifts would you bring?
The wise men found the child and worshipped him. They brought gifts, gifts fit for a king, gold, frankincense and myrrh. What did these gifts mean for the mother who received them on behalf of her child? What do these gifts mean for us, here and now?
They presented first the gold. Let me tell you about gold.
Gold is precious metal fashioned into jewellery and precious objects. Gold is money. Gold greases the wheels of politics and commerce. You can buy things with it, you can use it to make others do what you want. Gold brings you status and power. You can use it to alleviate poverty and make sick people well, but on the whole, those who have it are reluctant to let go, and those who think they don’t have enough would do many things to get in on the action.
We went to see the 3rd of the Hobbit films on Friday. It centres on a great hall in a cave in a mountain, where a huge dragon has accumulated so much gold, it is beyond your and my imagining. When the dragon is killed, armies of different races come from all corners of the world because they want that gold. The king of the dwarves is turned mad by it. His good intentions crumble to dust and he desires to possess all of it, every last coin. All his compassion is gone. It is only the Hobbit, the Halfling, who has not been tainted by the gold, who can make the difference to the victory of good over evil.
Gold is a gift for a king, yes, but gold tests you – it teases out what kind of person you truly are. How you handle money matters. If you want it too much, you can lose something of your true self. The wise men gave the child gold because they knew that he was a king who would need it and they trusted him to use it wisely. They gave him gold because they did not cling to it themselves.
What would you give to this king?
Then the wise men gave frankincense. Let me tell you about frankincense.
Frankincense is the resin from various species of the Boswellia tree. The bark of the tree is slashed and the tears of resin seep out and hardens. Around 1,000 tons of frankincense is produced each year, mainly from Somalia and Southern Arabia. Frankincense is used in perfume and medicines, but in churches it is used for worship. The ancient Jews used it in the temple as part of the daily sacrifice – it symbolised prayer and worship before God, and the presence of God before the people. There is something very holy about incense. But the prophets make it clear that incense by itself means nothing – it must be offered out of lives that seek what is good and right and just.
When the wise men bring frankincense, they are making a point about this baby’s divine origins. This is no ordinary baby. He has been sent from heaven. Human, yes, fully human. But special. So special that they were moved to offer incense.
What worship would you give to this king?
At the last, the wise men put before the child another gift – this time, myrrh. A strange gift for a child. Let me tell you about myrrh.
Myrrh is also a resin, from a small thorny bush. There are different types. Like frankincense, it is used to make perfume and is also used in healing. It is also an ingredient of the incense used in worship. But it had another purpose in the ancient world, being one of the substances used for embalming bodies after death.
The gift of myrrh to the little child makes a point about death. It is a recognition that even this baby will die – and we know that his death will be slow and cruel and painful. We wouldn’t dare make such a point at the cradle-side – that this baby is going to die. But it is true and honest. Our culture denies death, avoids talking about death, turns away from the reality of death. But we are all going to die. In giving myrrh, the wise men challenge us with questions about our own death – how are we going to die? How shall we make a good end?
What honour would you give to this king in his dying and his rising again?
Three gifts. Three gifts that challenge us in our attitude to money, to worship, to death. You might argue that the story didn’t really happen, as scholars have. But if you close your eyes to the challenge of the gifts, maybe you are losing out on the gifts the wise men bring to you.