Of Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh & Stones (Epiphany)
Of Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh & Stones
Rev. Fritz Nelson
January 3, 2021 (Epiphany)
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
If you ever find yourself in Saveh, Iran, an ancient city about a hundred miles outside of Tehran, start asking about the three wise men. Legend has it their graves lie under the rubble of the long since destroyed old city. Of course the residents of Cologne, Germany claim the wise men are buried in their cathedral – a gift from the pope, way back in 1100 AD. He supposedly got their bodies in Turkey.
In the late 1200’s AD, Marco Polo, the well traveled Italian merchant who was the first European to go to China and write a book about it, visited Saveh, saw the supposed tombs of the Magi and claims to have heard this story:
In the days gone by, three kings of Seveh went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings – gold, frankincense and myrrh – so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king, or a healer. For they said: “If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.”
When they came to the place where the prophet was born the three sages went in individually, each experiencing the Christ Child as a person just like them, of the same age and appearance. They were much amazed and resolved to all go in together. So in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense and myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed chest. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.
After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief.
The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good.
Marco Polo tells this story to explain the origin of fire worship among the Zoroastrians, an ancient pre-Christian religion with its roots in Iran. I share this story partly because its interesting and partly because of the truth it preserves about the Christ Child and about us.
First, however, a clarification. Marco Polo’s story isn’t scripture. Its legend. One of dozens of legends surrounding the wise men, whose mysterious story, combined with Matthew’s lack of details, has proven fertile ground for Christians and others who wish to write their communities and cultures into the Biblical story. But these legends, if not true, often preserve a little truth – if not about the wise men themselves, then about our God and ourselves.
In the legend told to Marco Polo the gifts serve as a test. Who is this child; whose birth was announced by a star? Was the child to be an earthly king? Was the child a god come to earth? Was the child a healer? The child accepts all three, and gives the wise men a gift in return. A stone. Which they throw down a well. God responds to this rejection by sending fire from heaven, fire the magi collect and worship.
Zoroastrianism is a real religion and Zoroastrian fire worship is a real thing, even today. The practice seems to predate Jesus, so Marco Polo’s legend appears to have little historical truth to it. The story sticks with me for a different reason. In their rejection of the gift from the Christ child, the wise men end up rejecting the child as well. Only a few days into their journey home they’ve forgotten how Jesus revealed himself to him. And instead of God’s fire causing repentance and a recommitment to what they experienced in Bethlehem, they end up worshipping the fire as a god.
Standing at the close of 2020 it can feel as if God gave us a stone. We’d literally like to throw the year down a well and get on with our lives. We crave normal. The last year sits as a burden on our backs, a noose around our necks, a giant vacuum sucking away at our illusions of who we are as a nation, a people, a community, even as individuals.
Yet has there ever been a year when we’ve needed more than ever to put Jesus’ laws, teachings and expectations for how we live our daily lives front and center. Humility, justice, patience, selflessness, peace, love of neighbor all were put to the test and all found lacking. Has there ever been a year when we found ourselves more dependent upon the providence of God to lead us through trials and struggles beyond our comprehension or management? Yet our faith has often been lacking. Has there ever been a year when physical, emotional and spiritual healing was more needed? Yet we wounded as much as we healed.
Sometimes the great struggles in life reveal the great truths about life. This year has revealed how much we need Christ as ruler over our earthly lives; how much we need Christ as God with us, the earthly presence of the divine; how much we need healing, the deep healing brought only through the blood of the cross.
The year past has been a gift. A gift we may not have sought. A gift we may not want. But a gift none the less. To throw it down a well is to miss its call to steadfast faith, to holy living, to the ministries of healing and reconciliation. To throw it down a well is to risk missing Jesus and returning to our pre-COVID selves, the very selves who were failing God’s test.