…[T]hey went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
-Matthew 2:9-12 (NIV)
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gifts fit for a king, a king whose birth has been heralded by the rise of a star. While Israel sleeps (except for a few shepherds), unaware of the birth of their Savior, a group of star-watchers from the other side of the known world has already arrived at the end of their long journey.*
They bring gifts, because they recognize the One who should be worshipped.
But there are shadows around this child. Not all of Israel sleeps — Herod watches, and waits. He’s an old king, made paranoid by years of clinging to the morsels of power Rome has given him. His insanity is magnified by the boot-lickers that do his bidding, and he makes the wise men fear for the child’s life. Their feelings are confirmed by the dream they all have, and they decide to pick another route home, a route that doesn’t bring them back across Herod’s path.
But first, they take turns kneeling down in front of the little one, placing their hands on his head, letting him grip their fingers. They smile, they shed tears, maybe, at the end of their long journey. They congratulate mother and father. And then they open their gifts.
Gold, we get that. But frankincense and myrrh? Well, they’re perfumes — aromatic resins, more precisely. They come from any number of trees and bushes, and their scarcity and the work involved in harvesting and processing them makes them valuable. They were used by royalty. Frankincense was used in the Temple worship in Jerusalem. But not myrrh, not in the temple. Myrrh had two other very specific uses. Two other times the Gospels tell us about someone bringing myrrh to Jesus.
The first is as he hangs on the cross, in the concoction they bring him to drink, maybe as an anesthetic.
The second is after his death, when following the Sabbath Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloes to perfume his body with.
Imagine bringing a casket to a baby shower, and adding it to the pile of strollers, diapers, and baby monitors on the gift table.
Obviously, the wise men didn't know. They just meant to honor him with gifts appropriate to royalty, and that’s just what they did. It just turned out that the myrrh was appropriate in more ways than one.
There are shadows around this child. Herod’s goons are on the way, and the shouts of joy that accompanied the news of Mary’s and Joseph’s baby boy would soon give way to wails of mourning and anger. It might have been that the scent of myrrh was heavy in the air around Bethlehem for a few days, as grief-stricken parents buried their children. It might even be that myrrh that the wise men brought found its way to one of those children’s bodies.
Christmas smells like candy canes and fir trees, gingerbread and ham. But not for everyone.
For some, at Christmas the smell of myrrh is in the air. The smell of grief and mourning, loss and pain and betrayal. This Christmas, the smell of myrrh in in the air in Peshawar, where 132 children are dead after terrorists broke into their school and started shooting. The smell of myrrh is in the air in Cairns, Queensland, in Australia, where eight children were killed Friday morning. The smell of myrrh is remembered in Newtown, Connecticut, on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.
The smell of myrrh is in the air in Chicago, too, for families who have no heat or electricity, not to mention gifts. The smell of myrrh is in the air for people living on the streets, but also in the air for people living in expensive houses in tony suburbs. It’s in the air for my friend grieving the loss of his beloved wife, for families broken by divorce, for those spending this Christmas by the bedside of a dying spouse, parent, child, or friend.
In our world, the scent of myrrh is always there, reminding of us sorrow, violence, pain, and our own mortality.
That’s why he came, and that’s why he came as he did. He didn’t come with a sword, at the head of an army, conquering his enemies and dealing out vengeance and retribution. He came as a newborn, laid in a feed trough and swaddled with rags, with the smell of myrrh in the air, with no weapon to defend himself from those who would end his life before it began.
The shadows didn’t know it, but on that day when he came, their time was up. He came to a world smelling of myrrh, of death and grief and pain and power and violence, and he didn’t try to deny it. He didn’t say it was our imagination. He didn’t raise a fist or a sword or even his voice. The fist that curled around his mother’s finger on that night would curl not all that many years later around an iron spike, pinned against a timber. He let the shadows wash over him and then, when they had done their worst, he came to life again. He just came to life and shrugged off those grave clothes — those grave clothes that had held all that myrrh for three days. Shrugged them off and left them in his tomb.
When Peter and John entered the tomb, I bet they could still smell the myrrh. When Mary Magdalene fell at his feet, I wonder if she could still smell it. When he walked along with those followers on the road to Emmaus and shared bread with them, walked into that locked room and let Thomas touch his wounds, forgave Peter for his denial — I wonder if they could still smell the myrrh.
In Jesus, the smell of myrrh, the rank odor of death and violence and sickness and pain, is transformed into something else. The smell of life, the scent of hope, the fragrance of renewal. This Christmas, though the scent of myrrh is strong in the air of our world, may we remember, and celebrate.
*The wise men may have come weeks or months after Jesus’ birth, based on the fact that he’s in a house when they arrive and that Herod kills children two years old and younger because of (we assume) the wise men’s time frame. But Jesus was probably born in an animal shelter near or even in a house, and the text never says how Herod decided on the age ranges of his victims. On the basis of the text, it’s just as likely that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem about the time Jesus was born.