The Epiphany of our Lord (Year A). Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.
The First Reading today clearly was chosen because it offers a citation for Matthew. The Magi (and Matthew does not give us any idea how many Magi there are) bring three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Isaiah mentions the coming glory of God’s people. and how the nations will bring gold and frankincense. No myrrh. Matthew adds it. Matthew very likely knew Isaiah 60. Even if he did not, the Church knows it, and cannot help but notice that his list and Isaiah’s list don’t match.
Gold: that’s obviously something you want. It’s shiny, you can trade it for stuff. It’s also a color of royalty. You’re a (symbolic, at least) king when you get gold.
Frankincense: that’s a little less obvious to us, but it’s useful. It is especially useful if you work someplace stinky, like a temple. Temples in the ancient world were nothing like churches, synagogues, or mosques. They were filled with animals being slaughtered. People socialized, yes, but the stench of slaughter filled the place. The barbecue going on at the altar couldn’t mask the stench. Frankincense could, though. Good stuff. You’re a (symbolic, at least) priest when you get frankincense.
Myrrh: Only Matthew mentions this. Isaiah mentions kingship and priesthood. Those are things we dream of when we want a good world. I want a righteous king and the right relationship with God. Matthew adds myrrh. You need myrrh for embalming a corpse. Useful, yes, but not something you necessarily want to think about. Clearly, Matthew has us looking ahead, even with the infant Jesus, to the time when Christ has died on the cross.
When we read Matthew’s list of gifts side-by-side with Isaiah’s, it amplifies the crucifixion that is to come. “Just in case there was any missing it, Jesus dies.”
That death does a lot; one thing it does is prevent us from becoming triumphalist. A triumphalist point of view says that God has won, so we have won. We are the best thing that ever happened. Everyone else either needs to get with us or accept that they just suck compared to us. We will succeed in life. Our success now is simply proof of how great we are. If your life sucks, well, consider that you have not joined us. Those are the sorts of things that come with triumphalism. To that God says, “Don’t forget the myrrh.”
Don’t forget the myrrh. There is a price that comes for God’s triumph. Don’t forget the myrrh. God was present even, no, especially, in the crucifixion.
Don’t forget the myrrh. A lot more football teams will lose out this year than will win the Super Bowl. (My secular religious universe did not do so well yesterday.) A lot of injuries will be suffered. There were over 140 concussions confirmed this season. (That’s one concussion confirmed for every three and a half games played.) Someone will win the big game and be anointed as the chosen, the exemplars of victory and immortality that we desire so much.
Don’t forget the myrrh. Our cities set aside tax money intended for infrastructure, schools, hospitals, police officers, prisons, and gives it to multimillionaires in order to keep the teams nearby. Someone will claim victory. Even their city will have lost.
Don’t forget the myrrh. God is present in the hollowed out shells of cities and in the shattered lives of those with calamitous head injuries far more explicitly than God is present in the critical late game turnover, winning field goal, or hokey Lombardi trophy presentation.
Don’t forget the myrrh.
For a less invective take on this, check out this post over on Cresset from David Lott.