In recent years there has been a move by charities and churches to collect unwanted Christmas gifts and distribute them to those who would appreciate them more. A laudable and practical idea; but it got me thinking about what happened to the gifts that Mary and Joseph received on behalf of baby Jesus. While we are never actually told how many Magi turned up nearly two years after Jesus birth, we do know that they presented him with three gifts of considerable value: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. While History now deems them ‘Wise Men’ there is a world of difference between their knowledge of the heavenly signs and portents and their lack of wisdom in dealing with the despot, Herod. But even tyrants must have been impressed with the value and nature of the gifts these learned men brought with them. Their size and value almost certainly confirmed their bona fides, and sealed the fate of unknown numbers of young children in the region of Bethlehem. Indeed, there is evidence of these same three gifts being offered by the Syrian King Seleucus I Nicator to Apollo in 288/7 BC. Kingly gifts with deep significance, so what became of them, did Mary treasure them in her heart as she did with the extraordinary encounters and experiences this new child drew to Himself. Did she hold on to the gold in the same way we might frame a cheque received from a celebrity. I think not. Almost certainly Mary and Joseph found immediate use for the gold as they fled south on their way to Egypt. Going into exile, seeking asylum from violent expression is a costly business (ask anyone trapped in Greek detention centres or Direct Provision Centres in Ireland). The journey to and through borders is a costly one and we can safely assume that by the time that the holy family made it back to Nazareth there would have been just enough left to set up a home and a carpentry and stone mason business. Gold was very much the ‘practical present’.
Frankincense on the other hand was more prayer-full than practical. Its rich aromas designed to heighten the physical and spiritual senses, filling a home that would most likely have overwhelmingly smelled of animals, heat induced dust and manual labour. How often, of an evening would the Holy Family have burned some of their precious gift to help them to settle themselves and pray? Did Mary use the incense as she ‘treasured these experiences’, the shadow of a sword always nearby as she prepared for what was to come. Frankincense was very much the ‘spiritual present’.
And what of the Myrrh, the one present Mary would have gladly ‘returned to sender’ with its inherent reminder of death and decay. Its oil substance processed from the thick resin of the trees, a luxurious gift, that was essential to the embalming process of the time. Did she keep it? Did she store it up all those years that Jesus was with her? Did she use some of it for her beloved Joseph when his end came all too soon? Did she get it to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as they made hurried burial preparations after her son was so cruelly killed? Or was that why the women were making their way to the garden tomb on that Easter morn; to bring the myrrh to ensure the body was properly treated and respected according to the rites and customs of the day? Did the myrrh lie among shattered shards of the clay jar it was stored in, oozing upon the dust outside the empty tomb, where terrified fingers had fumbled and let go their load: What became of this comforting gift, this resin associated with death, but also signifying honour and value and respect? Myrrh was, after all, the ‘Pastoral present’.