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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Gifts of the Wise Men

            I wrote about the Nativity yesterday with a short paragraph about the wise men. I noted that the scriptures do not tell us how many wise men came to see the newborn King. People through the ages assumed that there were three wise men because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are assumed to be rich because of their expensive gifts.

            There is no information about how many wise men, who they were, or what country they came from. The assumption is that the wise men rode on camels from their homes in the “east,” but this information is not given in the scriptures. I assume that they rode something – camels, donkeys, elephants, or whatever – because they were carrying heavy gifts, plus all their camping gear.

            I understand that the wise men were watching for a new star in the heavens and then left their home country to look for the newborn King. The testimony of St. Matthew shares the following:

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him (Matthew 2:1-2).

            According to the scriptures, the shepherds found the newborn King soon after his birth. However, the wise men came some time later. Jesus was circumcised when eight days old (Luke 2:21). He was presented in the temple after Mary’s days of purification (Luke 2:22). Elder James E. Talmage says that the days of purification for post-birth mothers is 40 days (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 8). At any rate the Holy Family is living in a house, and the Baby is now described as a “young child” (Matthew 2:11) when the wise men arrive.

            I always assumed that the gifts of the magi were simply gifts. However, Christopher Kirkland believes that the gifts might have had more meaning and be connected with the temple.

Gold is for Kings, and in ancient Israel often connotes the heavenly presence…. Ancient Israel used gold extensively in the Temple decor, connoting the heavenly realms and the presence of a king…. [He also suggests that the gold might not have been gold coins but items made from gold.]

Frankincense was a rare spice used in the Temple (Leviticus 2:1, 4, and 24:7 are some examples)…. It was burnt with almost every sacrifice offered in Jerusalem’s temple. Mixed with salt, the smoke became white, and was seen as prayers ascending up to heaven…. It was impossible to perform temple ordinances as proscribed in the Law of Moses without Frankincense.

Myrrh is a natural preservative…. Myrrh was also mixed with olive oil and other spices to be used for anointings in the Temple. It was kept in a flask in the Holy of Holies. The formula for this “holy anointing oil” is found in Exodus 30:23-25….

When we normally consider the wise men’s gifts, we usually tend to focus on the fact that they were rare and costly, and the lesson we derive from it is that we too should offer our best to Christ. While that is true, we shouldn’t forget that the gifts were also incredibly specific in their nature and use. Aside from their exchange value, the gifts would have been of very little practical use, especially for a young child. Unless….

… they were more than just gifts. Perhaps the wise men did more than just bring the young toddler gold to make His house more heavenly and sacred, frankincense for making offerings and consecrating sacrifices, and myrrh for anointing kings and priests. Perhaps they actually put these items to use in his behalf.

            Kirkland ties all his ideas about the gifts together with the LDS temple ceremonies, but I would like my readers to consider his idea of the wise men using their gifts to anoint and consecrate the newborn King. Is this the reason why the wise men were alerted to watch for the star? Were they Jewish priests living far from Bethlehem?

            These are all great questions. So is this one: Were the “Three Kings” special witnesses to Herod and other ruling classes just as the shepherds were witnesses to the lower classes? If the wise men came as special witnesses, there were at least two of them and possibly many more. We may or may not discover the answers to these questions in this life or learn them in the next one, but we can do as Mary did and ponder these things in our hearts (Luke 2:19).

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