The Path: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
In the Epiphany icon, you see the heart and soul of this season. The God-man is baptized in the waters. The waters below him are tempestuous. Demons and dragons look beneath him and flee violently. The heavens above open as the light of the Holy Spirit radiates down on him. This scene symbolizes the renewal of humanity and creation. The waters represent chaos and filth. Christ, a new humanity and new physical reality, plunges into the waters and they become calm. Then the Holy Spirit brings eternal Life. We must follow.
Today, we heard the gospel reading of the Magi. Though a different story, it is the same theme. The magi’s adoration is another type of baptism. In their gifts to Jesus Christ, they show us the path to sanctification. The soul is plunged into God. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11-12). What are these gifts? Each gift represents the gift God desires from us. St. Gregory preaches, “By gold wisdom is symbolized, as Solomon testifies, saying: There is desirable treasure in the mouth of the just (Prov. 21:20); by frankincense, which is burnt before God, the power of prayer is symbolized, according to the psalm: let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight (Ps 140:2); by myrrh is typified the mortification of the flesh. To the New Born King we offer the gold, if in His sight we shine with the light of wisdom. We offer incense when by the fervor of our prayer we offer up that which is agreeable to Him. We offer myrrh when by abstinence we mortify the vices of the flesh.” These are the gifts that God desires, wisdom, prayer, and death to ego.
We’ve seen this Christmas how the journey to the manger embodies everything. The whole purpose of life is to get there, to push through the rat race and nihilism of the world, to have hearts pure enough to see and follow the star, and there find ourselves bathed in the presence of God. Peace was born in a manger. We will only know peace when we rest at that manger. So what is the ticket? What is the road to the manger? How can we find blessedness, happiness…peace? We find our way through pursuing wisdom, prayer and death to ego.
Gold represents wisdom. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon writes: “[Wisdom] is more precious than jewels…Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy” (3:15-18). But how do we acquire wisdom? In Sirach, Wisdom calls out, “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my produce…Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more…All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God” (24:19-22).
Are we hungering for wisdom? St. Paul tells us to “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). We live in a culture when it’s acceptable to believe whatever you feel like believing: “If it makes you feel good go with it.” Well, we should be saying, “If it’s True go with it.” In Orthodoxy, we don’t pick and choose what to believe. We turn to the Church, the pillar and foundation of truth (I Tim. 3:15). Rather than picking and choosing, building a religion in our own-image, we aspire to conform our minds to the Church, to the gospel. “All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God” (Sirach 24:19-22). How often do we read the bible? I don’t mean a couple verses here and there, but in-depth study. How often do we balance our time soaking in the gospel of the times with the Gospel of eternity? Wisdom calls out. We offer Jesus Christ our gold, by pursuing his wisdom.
Incense represents prayer. St. Gregory quoted from Psalm 141.2, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” How is incense like prayer? It is a burning of little pieces of earth. It’s set on fire, changed into gas and ashes, and rises up to heaven. Prayer is the same. True prayer is a life sacrificed to heaven. Psalm 145 reads, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (v.18). The final phrase is vital. Our prayers are effective when we are calling “in truth” – when we are living righteous lives. St. John Kronstadt writes, “The Christian, approaching God with a prayer…in order to insure the success of his prayer, ought to try to resemble as far as possible the Lord Himself…In this lies the secret of drawing near to God, and of His speedily hearing our prayers.” How do you become like incense? You have to become a living prayer.
Myrrh represents the mortification of the flesh. This may be the most confusing part, at least for us Americans. Christ says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). What does it mean to deny oneself? How do we carry our cross?
The word flesh is often misunderstood in English. We take it to mean our body, our joints and sinews and their pleasures. However, there are two different words in Greek: Soma and Sarx. Soma refers to the physical body (as I described it just now). When the scriptures talk about the mortification of the flesh, they are using the second word, Sarx. Sarx refers to the sinful tendencies of our fallen nature. The sarx, the flesh, is everything broken and misaligned in us. The flesh is our energies twisted and warped.
St. Paul goes into great detail about the wicked tendencies of the Sarx. He starts by describing sins like “sexual immorality, impurity,” and all the obvious sins we take so seriously. Then he concludes with sins as equally destructive, yet more often winked at, “strife, jealousy, fits of anger…dissensions, [and] divisions” (Gal. 5:19-21). Churchgoers are quick to point their fingers at fornication and impurity, but are sometimes the quickest to strife, anger and division. But all grumbling, all backbiting, all division is equally part of the flesh as lust and fornication. Nothing hurts a Christian community quite so much as grumbling and criticizing. So, we are called to a different life. God wants us to mortify the flesh. This means being humble. It means letting go and letting God. We mortify the flesh when we love one another.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8).
Gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were the gifts of the magi and they can be our gifts too. This is the only truly worthwhile New Years resolution, to give God the gift of wisdom, prayer and death to self.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.