Sunday, January 8, 2012

Myrrh is for dead bodies, so why give it to a baby?


Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
The wise men offer the Christ Child the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When considering what it was that the magi must have believed about the Savior, St. Fulgentius tells us “Consider what gifts they offered and you will know what they believed.”
It is more than a little shocking, and quite disappointing, that the Catholic Encyclopedia says of the gifts: “The purpose of the gold is clear; the Child was poor. We do not know the purpose of the other gifts. The magi probably meant no symbolism.”
We, guided by the light of the Church Fathers, are not left in such darkness. Thus, let us consider specifically the gift of myrrh – what it is, and what it signifies.

Myrrh is for death
Myrrh is a resin (really an aromatic oleoresin, a natural blend of oil and resin) which can be extracted from various trees native to Africa, Arabia, and India. Myrrh resin is a natural gum and, like frankincense, could be burned as a type of incense.
In ancient times, myrrh was so valuable as to be as or even more precious than gold. Beyond being used as incense, it was used also as perfume, and medicine. Most specifically, myrrh was commonly used (especially in Egypt) in the process of embalming.
The last great Jesuit biblical scholar, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, states: “The bodies of the dead are buried with myrrh, that they may remain incorrupt. Myrrh has the property of drying up moisture, and preventing the generation of worms.”
The meaning of the gifts
As St. Fulgentius says, we may learn the faith of the wise men from the gifts they offer, and so we consider the teaching of the Church preserved in her Sacred Liturgy: “The wise men came from the East to adore the Lord in Bethlehem. Opening their treasures, they offer him three precious gifts: gold for the great King, frankinsense for the true God, and myrrh for his burial, alleluia.” (Benedictus antiphon for the Monday after Epiphany)
This same teaching is preserved by both Gregory the Great and Augustine, the latter saying: “Gold, as paid to a mighty King; frankincense, as offered to God; myrrh, as to one who is to die for the sins of all.”
This is why the wise men offered the Christ Child the odd (but precious) gift of myrrh – they had come to believe that he would die for the salvation of the world. Already, from his infancy, it was known and believed by these men (and surely by Blessed Mary and St. Joseph) that the Savior would offer his life as a most pure sacrifice and that by his death he would gain for us eternal life.
How did the wise men know and believe such mysteries?
Some hold that the star itself imparted these mysteries to the wise men – containing visions of the Cross and other signs. This seems to be affirmed also by the mystical revelations given to certain saints (Bl. Emmerich, for example).

Others maintain that the wise men may have been familiar with certain of the prophecies contained in the Old Testament. Indeed, if the wise men were from Persia (as is commonly held), then it is possible that some of the Jews who had been exiled thither to Babylon may have passed on certain of the traditions and prophecies of the Christ who was to come.
What seems most probable, is that the wise men were given a supernatural knowledge of the mysteries of the faith through a divine infusion of wisdom. Indeed, the Holy Spirit (perhaps through the ministry of an angel) must have enlightened the minds of these men so that they might recognize the little Child to be the true God – for, as Matthew relates, they did not see him as only a frail child but, falling down they adored him as the Lord of heaven and earth.
What reason have we to doubt that knowledge of the future sacrifice of the Christ should have been revealed to the magi? It seems the only reasonable explanation as to why they offered a child that which is fitting for a dead body. It is, at least, the tradition of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, maintained also in the Liturgy.
Who offered each gift?
The three wise men are traditionally called Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. Thus it is that the faithful bless their homes with the sign: 20 + C + M + B + 12, signifying both the names of the wise men, and also “May Christ this Mansion Bless”.
According to Venerable Bede, Melchior gave gold, Gaspar frankincense, and Balthasar myrrh.

6 comments:

cinhosa said...

Thank you for the explanation of myrrh.

Further reflection from the Happy Priest - http://www.catholic.org/hf/faith/story.php?id=44312

Irenaeus of New York said...

or "Christus Mansionem Benedicat".

Dan said...

Our perhaps myrrh was given to Him who would conquer death.

Father S. said...

@Father,

I heartily recommend to you and to the readership the meditations of Bl. Columba Marmion on the Epiphany from his text, “Christ in His Mysteries.” Over the last year or so, I have routinely returned to his meditations as a wonderful source of homiletic insight. In his eighth meditation, “The Epiphany,” he reasserts the Pastristic interpretation of the significance of these gifts and offers very fruitful insight. Further, he offers a keen insight about the promptness of the Magi that I find stirring. The most common image of the Magi—aside from the image of them at the crèche—seems to be the image of them in transit. I have often tried to imagine them waiting, anticipating the signal, having prepared everything meticulously for their journey. As such, I was struck by this comment of Bl. Marmion:

“The Magi’s fidelity to the inspiration of grace is wonderful. Doubt takes no hold upon their minds; without staying to reason, they immediately begin to carry out t heir design…They obey the divine call without delay or hesitation.” (Bl. C. Marmion, “Christ in His Mysteries,” 142)

As we often say and have said much today here in my parish, ¡Feliz día de los Reyes Magos!

Kind Regards,
Father S.

Ismael said...

The Catholic Encyclopedia, however does state the truth as the quote from Knabenbauer continues:

"We do not know the purpose of the other gifts. The Magi probably meant no symbolism. The Fathers have found manifold and multiform symbolic meanings in the three gifts; it is not clear that any of these meanings are inspired "

So the Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that the Church Fathers (and also many other theologians) have discussed the matter of the three gifts.

A common interpretation is:
“Gold, as paid to a mighty King; frankincense, as offered to God; myrrh, as to one who is to die for the sins of all.”

as you also point out... However other interpretations exist.

The point is we are not sure of what went through the Magi's head at the time.

It might be possible that they were just giving him royal gifts but were unaware that such gifts given to Christ meant something even deeper.

One thing I do agree Knabenbauer's claim "The purpose of the gold is clear; the Child was poor"... is very stupid as the Magi themselves probably could not have any idea if Jesus was rich or poor (perhaps they were expecting him to be Herods' child who know?)

The Catholic Encyclopedia perhaps should add the Church Fathers interpretation on the gifts, for completion, but its statements, I think, are quite true to giving a sober explanation, even if not a very satisfactory one.

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This seems to be affirmed also by the mystical revelations given to certain saints (Bl. Emmerich, for example).


I'd advise caution on that. There are quite some strong debates whether or not Bl. Emmerich's revelations are fully reliable on such matters.

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What seems most probable, is that the wise men were given a supernatural knowledge of the mysteries of the faith through a divine infusion of wisdom. Indeed, the Holy Spirit (perhaps through the ministry of an angel) must have enlightened the minds of these men so that they might recognize the little Child to be the true God

I do like to believe this, I must say.

The problem is that this carries little to no weight in the historical-critical assessment of Jesus' life... but of course the historical-critical method has its own limits and its own flaws (as Pope Benedict also pointed out in his last book on Jesus).


Of course I do agree that we can put some of our trust on the Church Fathers, who although not infallible, had often very deep insights.

Victoria said...

A hymn for Christmastide II in the LOTH says: Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
Incense doth the God disclose,
Gold and King of Kings proclaimeth,
Myrrh a future tomb foreshows

Aurelius C. Prudentius 348-c 413

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