In Matthew’s gospel, he tells us about the three wise men. He doesn’t actually say the number three, but based on the gifts given to Baby Jesus, traditionally we count them as three men. And what a group of men these were, spiritually curious, headstrong and independent, making a long trip on their own from the East to find the new King and pay homage to him.
“On coming to the place, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. They opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, of frankincense, and of myrrh.” Matthew 2:11.
Matthew wants us to know about the gifts. These wise men brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn king. All three gifts were incredibly valuable and extravagant at the time, and still are today. No doubt, they were received with awe and gratitude.
But we don’t actually know what happened to the gifts. Matthew tells us only that they were indeed brought by the wise men. There is nowhere else in the scripture that tells us what happened after this.
Of course, there are legends and stories about it; one says that the thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus had stolen them. Another claims that Judas was made custodian of the gifts, and he sold them to pocket some extra side cash. Nonetheless, none of these stories are in the Bible.
So, what happened to these presents? Why does Matthew not tell us about them? This is because this story is not about the gifts we bring, but about the gifts we receive.
Let’s take a deeper look into the gifts of the three wise men and what we can learn from them today. Take a look at the painting above. It is by the Italian master, Carlo Dolchi, and was painted in 1654. The work is entitled “The Adoration of the Magi” (Magi being a word for wise men).
You can see the gold vessels in the painting and the chunks of myrrh and frankincense all around. These vessels were called censers, and are basically modern-day oil diffusers. Aromatic resins were placed on a concave metal depression in the vessel, and the base was charged with coals to send heat beneath to vaporise the oils. Censers are mentioned 20 times in the Bible, so they were definitely being used over 2,000 years ago!
What is more interesting, however, is the gift of gold. We think of gold as being in bars or jewelry, but in ancient times, the gift of gold would have been these actual censers made of gold. With these, they could use the given frankincense and myrrh. Being a simple carpenter, Joseph would probably never have been given gold before, but would have been paid in denarius, which were silver or copper coins.
Frankincense was given to Mary and Joseph as a holy, anointing oil. It was brought to baby Jesus to be used to anoint him as a newborn king. The woodsy, earthy scent of the oil promotes a regal feeling of peace. It can also help soothe skin irritation, which is perfect for a newborn baby and his mother. Mary would have only caught a whiff of frankincense if she had brushed against a wealthy person in Nazareth.
Myrrh is a powerful antiseptic and is commonly used after childbirth, so it was given especially to Mother Mary. The humble shrub dates back over 4,000 years, with the Greeks knowing its healing properties. Its warm, woody scent complements that of frankincense. It was also used in the burial of the rich and powerful – another sign of what would become of the newborn baby.
I hope this post has given you a fresh look into one of the most iconic sections of the Bible and a new understanding of what the gifts were and meant and how they can be used today.