Who were these ‘wise men’ and what’s the significance of these gifts that they brought?

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By Father Brian Morris

As I write this, I have just finished a full day at St. Luke’s school marking the many classroom doorways with chalk and explaining to each class the meaning of the markings “20+C+M+B+18” and the wonderful feast of the Epiphany. So, I thought that I would share with you all what I shared with the many kids today. Last Sunday, we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the visitation of the Holy Family by the Magi from the East as told in Matthew’s Gospel. These three “wise men” as they are commonly called, or the three “wise guys” as I called the three eighth-graders who played them this year at St. Luke’s Christmas Pageant, only appear in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Yet, no nativity scene seems complete without them kneeling before the Christ child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

St. Matthew never actually says that there are three of them. He refers to them as “magi,” which is plural, and he always refers to them in the third person plural. So, we know that there are more than one of them. Also, the first reading from Isaiah mentions “Caravans of camels” and “dromedaries from Midian and Ephah…bearing gold and frankincense,” which would imply that there was a caravan of many people visiting Jesus and bringing wealth from many nations. St. Matthew doesn’t mention them as kings, but Psalm 72 says “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute,” thus opening the idea that they could be kings from the Orient. Settling on three of them primarily lines up with the three gifts that they brought, although this number three has also been said to represent the three known continents of that time, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Of course, once we have three in our minds, we must then come up with names for them. St. Matthew is silent on these names, as is the rest of scripture. Western Christian tradition gives their names as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, which is why we chalk the initials C, M and B on our doorposts. By the way, the tradition of marking our doorposts, and the classrooms in the school, is a way of asking God’s blessing on these places and on those who inhabit them. It is an invitation to remember Jesus in our comings and goings through that doorway. It is also reminding us that we too are on a journey, a lifelong pilgrimage, to meet the God made man, just as the magi did 2,000 years ago.

Finally, what about those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? St. Matthew does give us what they are, and my favorite source for remembering what they mean is the Christmas song “We Three Kings.” Gold tends to be the most obvious of the three, as it is a gift for a king. But the wise men are not Jews, so it symbolizes that Jesus is born not just to be king of the Jews, but king over all people. As the carol goes: “God I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.” One tradition records that the Holy Family had the gold stolen from them by the very thieves who found themselves on the crosses to Jesus’ left and right. The next gift is frankincense, which is a type of incense. Incense is placed on hot coals to produce a sweet-smelling smoke to symbolize our prayers going up to the God in the Heavens. It is the priest who uses incense when he offers the sacrifice in the Temple, and hence this gift symbolizes that Jesus is the high priest on which all future priests are to receive their priesthood. And finally, there is myrrh. Myrrh is a valuable spice, often used in the cleansing of dead bodies. It symbolizes that the Son of God, in the human nature that He has assumed, will die and be buried. A few of the students made faces at this when I told them this one. Quite the first birthday gift: “Here’s some spices for when you die!” But, if we think about it, that’s the very point. The Son of God became man specifically for that purpose. From the very moment of His conception, that was His number one task, to suffer and die for our sins. The fact that one of these wise men gave Him myrrh at the very beginning reminds us of that. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we see Mary Magdalene and other women going to the tomb with “spices” to anoint the body of Jesus. Some sources claim that the very myrrh that was given by the wise men was saved all those years by the Virgin Mary and given to the women to anoint Jesus’ body with. It’s another pleasant tale without any serious scriptural backing though. But there you have it. The three gifts of the wise men show that Jesus would unite all peoples under his rule, He would be the high priest that offers the sacrifice to the Father to heal us of our sinfulness, and that the sacrifice offered would be His own body and blood.

“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers. Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.