Saturday 6 December 2014

A Myrrh-y Christmas

"Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
 It is Balthazar, they say, who arrived at the house where Jesus and his family were staying, who carried myrrh to the baby king. Balthazar is said to have been from Arabia and to have brought the aromatic gum from the south of Yemen.

These days, most people have no idea what myrrh is, and only a vague idea what frankincense is. Which may be why this shop represented Balthazar as arriving at the manger holding.... erm - a dressing gown cord, maybe?

"And I bring you.... erm.... a curtain cord? Hope it makes up for Joseph losing his saxophone"

But why should anyone know what myrrh is? It's a fairly esoteric thing after all. An aromatic gum, produced by bleeding the resin out of shrubs in southern Arabia, most commonly used in New Testament times in embalming.

Not necessarily what a young mum would be expecting as a present for her firstborn. A rattle might be more appropriate, you would think.

Jesus is offered myrrh again - 33 years or so later - as he arrives at Golgotha:
"And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take."
The first time he is offered myrrh - a symbol of death - he is a baby. The gift is accepted. If gold is for a king, and incense for God, then myrrh is for a mortal - just one of us. Born to die. The second time he is offered myrrh is as a form of analgesic. Something to numb the pain of what is to come. He turns it down. He accepted his mortality when he received it the first time - this time he is going to go through with it. He has accepted humanity's two-fold agony. He's not calling angels, he's not summoning legions to rescue him, he's going to go right through with all that is ahead.

I presume, for it is not explicitly mentioned as such, that there's a third time that myrrh is offered to him in the Gospels:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
The first time, as a symbol of his mortality - he accepts it.
The second time - as a killer of pain - he rejects it.
The third time - as a preserver, an embalmer - he doesn't need it.

There's darkness in the stories we have of Jesus's childhood. The death of the innocent, the escape to Egypt, the sword that will pierce Mary's heart. The incense smells sweet, and the gold glistens with value. But the myrrh is the one that tells the story.


  1. I loved the three times: an Advent reflection in itself: thanks!

  2. Thank you! I plagiarised this shamelessly for this year's Epiphany sermon.


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