Read Sermon


Gold, Frankinsence and Myrrh

An address by Fr John Slater

11 January 2004 11:00 | Fr John Slater

We all have our favourite feasts and for me Epiphany is high on the list. Maybe it’s because I love the Epiphany hymns or maybe because it’s a chance to celebrate the incarnation without the distractions of an increasingly secular Christmas.

Wise men from the east - it’s a very colourful and exotic touch in a story otherwise dominated by hardship and difficulty. There will be no end to the debates about who they might be or whether they even existed, but Matthew has chosen to include the story in his narrative of the birth of Jesus and we must take that seriously. Magi or wise men were Persian and Babylonian experts in the movement of the stars and the planets - with amazingly accurate records going back thousands of years. They studied the movements of the heavenly bodies on the principle as above, so below. They believed that events in the skies indicated events on earth. Different stars had been given specific meanings. One star might represent kingship; another was a symbol of a nation like Judaea. The coming together of these two might be interpreted to mean the birth of a new king of special importance in Judaea.

Reporting such a belief to King Herod was a dangerous business. Herod’s family were a recent intrusion into Judaea, coming from neighbouring Idumea and only recently converted to Judaism. Many Jews resented his rebuilding of the temple because they believed this could only be done by the Messiah - a king of royal descent from King David. If this new-born king the wise men spoke of were truly such a king, Herod was in real danger.

But the wise men went on to Bethlehem, only about ten miles from Jerusalem, and they found a new-born baby. But could this be the child indicated in the stars? There were no trappings of royalty - just the opposite, the utmost simplicity. The gifts were given, rich and costly, such a contrast to the bare surroundings - gold, frankincense and myrrh.

We know the traditional interpretation of the meaning of these gifts - that is made clear in the Epiphany hymns. Gold is a symbol of kingship, incense is offered only to God and myrrh is a sign of death, used in the burial of the dead. This tells us a great deal about what the first generations of Christians believed about Jesus. But if he is a king, the true nature of his kingship is revealed only when he is enthroned on the cross and crowned with thorns. If he is God, he is a God who humbles himself and lays aside divine glory and power to live a human life in simplicity and humility. Here is the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. His acceptance of death is unlike any other death and will prove to be the key to eternal life for the human race.

If we look deeply enough at any of the great festivals of the Church, we will find the whole of the mystery of Christian faith is to be found there. Even as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we find ourselves pointed to his sacrifice on the cross and to the victory of the resurrection.

Cookies used on this website
New EU legislation requires that all web sites clearly specify the presence of cookies and their purpose. Cookies are used to enhance the user experience. StGeorges uses Google Analytics to track activity on its site, helping to keep the site relevant and easier to use, via the use of these cookies . For an enhanced site experience, consumers will need to consent to the use of StGeorges cookies. A preference cookie, that will become available to you when you choose the ‘I agree’ button, will be a long-life cookie that will not automatically clear when you close the browser window. If you manually delete this cookie you will need to re-confirm your preferences every time you next visit this website, unless you choose accept the long life option.