We have just passed – and some of us celebrated – the Feast of the Epiphany which falls on January 6th. Perhaps it was me, but there seemed this year to be an extra emphasis on the ritualistic story from St Matthew’s Gospel. The Visit of the Kings to worship the Infant Christ with magnificent gifts strikes an obvious chord, however crude, with our modern and somewhat debased ideas of Christmas. We can all relate to the concept of giving and receiving lavish presents – dream-gifts of fabulous worth. And, by this time in the story of the First Noel, we have moved on a year or two from the Holy Family camping out in the stable. The Kings – Magi – Wise Men visited a boy of somewhat under two years old, housed in what appear to have been moderately settled circumstances.
When I was small myself, I found the quiet domestic setting of the Theophany something of an anticlimax after the drama of the stable and the manger. It seemed rather detached from the theatrical frenzy of Christmas. Other people appear to think the same, as figurines of the Kings are often placed in cribs, besides those of the shepherds and the oxen. Nowadays – maybe because it seems fashionable to stress the rustic squalor and trauma of Christ’s birth – I find it’s something of a relief, and more reflective, to imagine the Family in a more orthodox setting, clean and reasonably comfortable.
The Epiphany has long lost its status as the grand royal finale of the Twelve Days’ celebration. Christmas-tide lasts liturgically right into February, but the modern hasty world is desperate to leap forwards to St Valentine, if not Easter. If you mention Christmas after the statutory Bank Holidays people go all quiet and give you furtive looks, as though they have participated in something shameful. We have truncated the long slow leisurely feast of Christmas which lit up mid-winter and relieved both the outer and inner darkness. But we have failed to replace it with anything more stimulating than the sterile negativity of ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Dry January’ and S.A.D. The fathers of the ancient church knew more about human psychology and the reasons of the heart than is usually assumed.
As was no doubt intended by the Wise Men, and by St Matthew, the three gifts never fail to fascinate. We can all appreciate the symbolism of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But one may ponder on other meaningful luxuries that might have been brought – food, wine¤, gems, flowers, spices, clothing, fabrics. Books, spells, runes, horoscopes. For those of us who love scent it is remarkable that perfume should feature so prominently – twice over.
The Magi’s gifts were not uniquely imperishable. What became of them? Did they survive for centuries? Are they extant somewhere today?¤¤ Or did the Holy Family spend the gold on daily expenses? Some modern gospel commentators are keen on this idea. Maybe the gold financed the Flight into Egypt which took place shortly after the exotic visitors departed for the East. Was the myrrh used at Christ’s burial? Was the frankincense burned as an offering in the Temple at Jerusalem? Who shall say – but you know what? – I think we should have been told by the gospel writers if this were the case. Such pragmatism seems against the whole spirit of the episode.
My opinion is worth less than nothing but I would imagine that the gifts were hidden away; preserved, closely guarded by Christ’s mother. They all had a highly practical value but I think they remained concealed, buried even, like presents in a folk tale. Pregnant with meaning, ominous and auspicious in significance. Frankincense may have represented worship; myrrh – healing, suffering, death and entombment. But the baffling, even frightening, nature of these mystic gums would only be intensified in the mind of the thoughtful girl we are told that Mary was. Perfume resins require some kind of human action to ignite them: to release their powers via heat, fire or warmth of the skin. Perfume is transient. It is a link carrying prayer heavenwards. It awakens physical human desire as well as a communion with the Divine.
And of course frankincense and myrrh would have been as costly as the gold: all three gifts were of equal opulence. We know how disconcerting, embarrassing, even alarming it can be to receive a present of what seems to be disproportionate value. Imagine these presents laid out in a carpenter’s house in ancient Bethlehem while the well-groomed camels and caparisoned horses of the Magi stamped outside in the narrow street and the neighbours gawped. It occurs to me that Mary, having aready had audience of the Angel Gabriel, may have linked the heavenly fragrance of his wings with the perfumed treasures now set before her and her Child. And, as is well attested, heaven itself is scented by the prayers of the saints.
¤ thus linking the Epiphany with that first and most intriguing of Jesus’s miracles: the episode at the Cana wedding.
¤¤ The Monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos claims to house the presents: or a portion of them, at least. The skulls of the Three Kings lie in Cologne Cathedral.