06 January 2021

Gold, frankincense and
myrrh: bringing our best to
Christ as gifts at Epiphany

The Magi arriving at the crib outside Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 6 January 2021 (The Epiphany):

11 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

The Epiphany Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The 12 Days of Christmas have come to an end, and we have arrived at the Feast of Epiphany. Yes, the season of Christmas continues in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February. But this Feast of the Epiphany is part and parcel of the Christmas celebrations.

In Epiphany-tide, we mark three events in which Christ is revealed to all nations and peoples:

● the Visit of the Wise Men, told of in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12, 6 January 2021).
● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about next Sunday (Mark 1: 4-11, Sunday 10 January 2021).
● the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-12, a Gospel story we miss reading about this year).

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12) is a story that symbolises the Gentiles coming to Christ, bowing before him in worship, and laying their gifts and treasurers at his feet.

The promise of Isaiah after the return to Jerusalem is that the ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you’ (Isaiah 60: 3, 5-6).

The images in the Psalm of the kings across the known universe coming to visit the king in Jerusalem after the return from exile in the Persia empire also inspires Saint Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi.

Saint Paul reminds us in the Epistle reading of the promises in Christ being brought as gifts to the Gentiles.

In the Gospel reading, we are reminded of the Gentiles bringing their gifts to Christ and worshipping him with all they have.

The Magi, as the ‘Three Kings’ or ‘Three Wise Men,’ are regular figures in traditional nativity stories and in Christmas and Epiphany celebrations.

Saint Matthew’s phrase ‘from the east’ (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, apo anatolon, Matthew 2: 1), more literally means ‘from the rising [of the sun],’ but it does not tell us who they were or where they came from.

Saint Matthew does not count the number of wise men, nor does he describe them as kings. But the number of their gifts gives rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

In Western tradition, these Epiphany magi have been named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These names may come from an early sixth century Greek manuscript (ca 500) in Alexandria, although other authorities say the names are first found in an eighth century Irish manuscript.

In our cribs, they are often portrayed as European, African and Asian, with the European giving gold and the other two giving myrrh and frankincense.

As the tradition developed, the three wise men were transformed into kings who have been named as:

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;
● Caspar, an Indian scholar;
● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

The early mediaeval Church historian from Northumbria, the Venerable Bede, is the first scholar to say that Balthazar is black.

In Western art from the 14th century on, they are portrayed in these ways:

● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.

● Melchior is portrayed as a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is presented a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.

The story of the late mediaeval and Renaissance paintings of the Visit of the Magi is told in the Christmas exhibition, ‘Seeing the Unseen’, in the National Gallery in London, from today (6 January 2021) until the end of next month (28 February 2021). The exhibition creates a soundscape to enhance ‘The Adoration of the Kings,’ a wonderfully detailed painting by Jan Gossaert of the Low Countries. Although the gallery is closed because of Covid-19, the exhibition is available online.

Perhaps those mediaeval traditions and those Renaissance paintings were already making a statement against racism, centuries ago when Europe was beginning to engage in slave trading and began thinking of Africa as the ‘dark continent.’

Christ comes into the world as God’s gift of love and light, salvation and redemption, for all nations, for all peoples, and not just for the self-selecting elect.

And the gifts brought in turn by the magi and kings have been named by Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (Matthew 2: 11).

Traditionally these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;
● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;
● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.

These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in his carol We Three Kings (No 201, Irish Church Hymnal), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice

But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get at is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.

And they challenge us to ask whether we are offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.

It was a challenge that was thrown down over a century and a half ago by John Keble (1792-1866), who concludes his poem Epiphany with these words:

Behold, her wisest throng thy gate,
Their richest, sweetest, purest store,
(Yet owned too worthless and too late,)
They lavish on thy cottage-floor.

They give their best – O tenfold shame
On us their fallen progeny,
Who sacrifice the blind and lame –
Who will not wake or fast with thee!

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘The Adoration of the Kings’ by Jan Gossaert in the ‘Seeing the Unseen’ exhibition at the National Gallery, London, from 6 January to 28 February 2021

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Adoration of the Magi … a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Tipperary Town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)


For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The Magi waiting to arrive at the Epiphany … a scene in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)


202, What child is this, who laid to rest (CD 13)
201, We three kings of Orient are (CD 13)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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