After listening to the king the wise men left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
To someone who didn’t know who Jesus was, these three gifts would seem strange. Gold, the most precious of metals, the wealth of rulers and kings, given to a child born to a carpenter. Frankincense, used to make an incense for the purification of holy places given to a child born in a manger, surrounded by cattle. And myrrh, used to make holy oil for the anointing of kings, priests, and prophets given to a child from a rather unremarkable family. To an outsider, the scene would have seemed quite odd. But knowing what we know, knowing that Jesus was the Christ child, we know that these indeed were gifts for the king of kings.
So which was the greatest of these gifts?
Gold has been valued from the beginning. Literally. It was first mentioned along with other riches when describing the rivers of Eden in the second chapter of Genesis. In Genesis 13, Abram was said to be wealthy in “livestock, silver, and gold.”
Frankincense has been traded for at least 5000 years. Its first Biblical references were in Exodus and Leviticus. It was considered an essential commodity, despite its high price. At the hight of its trade around the first century, Arabia produced about 1,700 tons of it; astonishing considering that it is the hardened sap from a tree and it can only be produced two months out of the year.
Myrrh is produced in the same way as frankincense, and is even rarer. During the same time period, Arabia produced less than 500 tons of myrrh. The first mention of myrrh in the Bible was in Genesis 37 in the story of Joseph, where it describes a caravan of Arab traders who’s “camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh down to Egypt.”
A case can be made for any of these three as being the greatest in its physical value. But among them it is myrrh that holds a greater symbolic value: myrrh marks the bookends for Jesus’ life among us. It was brought as a gift from the magi at his birth, and it was used by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea to embalm the body of our crucified Lord. Yes, myrrh, a spice who’s most common use was embalming the dead, was given as a gift to the newborn Christ child.
These gifts are each significant in their own way. But while the Christmas star guides us to the Christ child, it is myrrh that guides us to the greatest gift of all: Christ crucified, the redeemer of our sins. For Jesus Christ is God’s gift to all mankind, a gift of limitless mercy, a gift of endless hope, and a gift of God’s everlasting love.