The author of the Gospel of Matthew writes with all the verve of a tax collector, with two exceptions: the Wise Men’s visit and the Sermon on the Mount. The first is high romance: Eastern sages, summoned by a star, arrive in Bethlehem and offer gifts to the infant son of homeless Jews. Exegetical tradition lends transcendence to their impractical baby presents. Gold for kingship; frankincense for godhood; myrrh for an all-too-human death.
The young family’s dreamlike encounter with generous strangers has held the Western imagination from Ravenna mosaics and Botticelli tondos through T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and even raunchy British popster James Blunt of “Wisemen” music-video fame. In Latin countries, children set out hay for Magi camels on El Dia de Los Reyes; in the west of Ireland, it’s “Women’s Christmas,” the day when wives head for the pub, men for the mop closet. The need to mark the moment when newborn hope shines forth in a storm-cloud world leaps cultures and centuries: Twelfth Night, the Theophany, Epiphany.
Gold’s allure we understand. Frankincense and myrrh, also portable and precious, are gum resins scraped from trees growing in south Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen. Bitter, rust red myrrh was antiquity’s painkiller. Ours, too, from organic myrrh gum for toothache to Italian craft ale brewed with ginger and myrrh. Frankincense burns sweet and white, bearing prayers to heaven. Nero cornered a whole year’s harvest for his wife’s funeral. Urban shamans from Rio to Brooklyn employ it still, though war and terrorism in North Africa have made supply routes risky.
The rest of us make do with frankincense candles, or shares in a Swiss bullion trust, or a chic gift pack from Santa Fe of myrrh moisturizer, frankincense cones, and half a gram of edible gold dust, for which the instructions are blessedly direct: tear open cellophane, mix with gin. It’s all a long way from the outstretched hands of the Magi, helping, healing, thanking. And distant, too, from that other great moment of mystery and challenge in Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount, when the adult Jesus abandons parable, fiercely praising those of any land who give, then give some more.