Ancient aliens

6 January 2016 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Feast of the Three Kings (traditional)

Long ago, high above a sleepy hamlet, a glowing object flashed through the night sky. Everybody saw it. Suddenly, the unidentified flying object came to a standstill. It seemed to hover in place. People were aghast.

Before long, aliens with human features appeared. People peaked through their windows, watching as these strange creatures wandered the streets, almost as though in search of something. The aliens, reliable sources reported, were dressed in uniforms such as nobody had ever seen. They carried mysterious boxes. These star-visitors seemed interested in one house in particular. Several people saw them entering the home. But then the aliens disappeared, secretly returning to wherever it was they had come from. Following this event, eyewitness accounts varied. Some said there were three aliens; some said there were 20. 

Oh, my. Have I inadvertently misled you? These weren’t space aliens from some other planet. These, according to St. Matthew, were the Magi visiting the home of the Holy Family. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much science fiction on TV. 

We know the Magi traveled afar, arrived in Jerusalem from the East, and then went on to Bethlehem. Some scholars hypothesize these wise-ones were priestly practitioners of the ancient religion of Zoroaster, court astrologers in the palace of the king of Persia. If so, they were 1,000 miles from home. Some say they traveled in a camel caravan; others say they came on horses or even elephants. 

St. Bede the Venerable imagined that one Magus was Asian, one white, and one black; one was young, one middle-aged, and one elderly. Bede decided to give the Magi proper names. 

Bede’s details are poetic license, but not the Biblical gifts — not the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Firstly, the Magi present gold. Isn’t it odd how gold always seems to come first? There are few things more precious, even today. In palaces and temples, gold has always been deemed appropriate. Think of the solid gold coffin of Tutankhamen, for example, not to mention the other gold objects scattered about his burial chambers. “Tut,” remember, was just a boy king — a relatively unimportant monarch as far as pharaohs go. Gold is for kings.

The gold in the Temple of Jerusalem remains beyond reckoning. Not only was there a vast treasury of gold donated by pilgrims, but there were countless ritual objects of gold. Even the exterior walls of the temple were covered in gold. Gold is for God. 

Gold, then, was a fitting gift for the Magi to present, especially to a family struggling financially. Just be careful the child doesn’t put it in his mouth. 

The other two gifts seem more puzzling. In those days, I would suppose, even as today, children prefer toys. Frankincense and myrrh are nothing more than yucky tree sap that has been allowed to solidify — hardened resin from boswellia and commiphora trees. These all-natural products were imported from Arabia and Africa. True, frankincense and myrrh were more precious than gold at that time, but still. 

Think of the sap of the maple tree. Good luck finding a child who will get all excited over a jug of Vermont maple syrup. And what, pray tell, were Mary and Joseph going to do with crates of frankincense and myrrh? Put them in a flea market? Re-gift them? Hide them in the back of a closet?

To solve this burning question, several Church Fathers came up with creative religious symbolism for the three gifts. I suspect there was no symbolic meaning intended. Call me a heretic. 

Frankincense and myrrh had been used in daily life for eons. Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, these products were imported from a far-off land called Put. Myrrh was used to treat minor wounds. What mother wouldn’t keep a jar in her medicine chest? Frankincense was used, among other things, as an ancient cosmetic eye liner. Male and female Egyptians slathered on the eye liner.

When the African Queen of Sheba visited the Jewish King Solomon, she came with caravans of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for a dazzling show-and-tell session. She intended to negotiate an international agreement with Solomon in exchange for military protection of the bandit-infested trade routes. She thus hoped to safely corner the world market on these luxury products. Their negotiation paid off. It made both monarchs very rich.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the demand for frankincense and myrrh had skyrocketed. The Roman Empire was importing 3,000 tons of frankincense a year. From the decks of ships passing off the coast of Arabia, sailors could smell the aroma from planted forests of myrrh and frankincense trees. 

Gold, frankincense and myrrh weren’t symbolic. They were all the rage. 

By the way, frankincense and myrrh are still used in products today, not only in Church incense but also in fragrant massage oil, perfume, and mouthwash.

Well, that’s more than you need to know about the gifts of the Magi. It’s time to turn on the History Channel and watch another exciting episode of “Ancient Aliens.” 

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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