They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10-11)
Of all the details about the Magi that legend has filled in to the Gospel passage from which the above verses belong (such as their names, their number, and when they came to see Jesus), one thing Matthew was perfectly clear about was the gifts they brought.
Tradition holds that each gift has a specific meaning:
Gold, for Christ as king;
frankincense for Christ as head priest;
and myrrh as a somber emblem for his eventual death.
Indeed, we imagine gold crowns atop the heads of kings. We know that frankincense (and myrrh in fact) were resinous aromas favored by Yahweh. And myrrh was used by the Egyptians and others in the ancient world for embalming.
These mysterious and precious substances have further value. Frankincense resin is used in several traditional medical systems as a treatment for arthritis and inflammation. Myrrh is also used for the same indications, as well as a topical treatment for wounds and slack tissues. Alchemists and homeopaths certainly use or have used gold for its mystical healing properties, associating it with the power of the sun and immortality because of its resistance to corrosion. These days, gold is being used in modern medical research for a range of applications that could impact cancer and other treatments.
Less explored is the nature of these substances as gifts from the earth, valued because they are increasingly rare, and because of the effort that must be put forth to harvest them. We may view our faith in terms of the Magi's three gifts:
Like gold, we strive to live a faith that shines like the sun and remains untarnishable. Emerging from the dark earth with a vibrant glow, it catches the eye of the hopeful and uplifts the depressed.
Like the frankincense tree, which can grow from nearly solid stone, we live a faith that can flourish in even the most challenging of conditions.
Like the myrrh tree (and the frankincense shrub) whose bark must must be slashed over and over in order to produce its resin, we are reminded that Jesus established and exemplified our belief that within tender flesh resides the healing balm of the sovereign Spirit, whose prayers and praise rise like aroma to Heaven.