Last week, we connected the Gifts of the Magi to the Child Jesus, and myrrh as it was used in the Biblical text both medicinally, in funerary practices. We also reflected upon the significance of myrrh in title of the women disciples of Jesus who are called in the Byzantine Christian tradition “The Holy Myrrh-Bearers.
In the third week of Advent we look at another of the gifts of the Magi-frankincense. In St Matthew’s Gospel 1:11 the men from the East open their “treasures” – which include frankincense.
In the early Fathers of the Church, frankincense becomes a prophetic sign of the divinity of the Christ Child, and it explains why the evangelist Matthew writes that the exotic Magi, the Wise Men from the East, kneel in worship before the humble manger.
St Bernard of Clairvaux is amazed:“… faith of the Magi in recognizing Christ under His disguise is indeed surpassingly wonderful, in their adoration and their offering of incense they confess Jesus to be God.” St Bernard on the Magi
In St Luke’s Gospel, by contrast, it is people from an entirely different social class who come to the manger, the Shepherds who are ordinary, local and poor.
St Bernard also notes that the Wise Men’s gifts were at the same time charitable and practical: “For they offered to Mary, the mother of the child, gold for to relieve her poverty, incense against the stench of the stable and evil air, myrrh for to comfort the tender members of the child and to put away vermin,”
The use of incense in religious ritual is common in both the east and west since very ancient times. In the Old Testament, starting with the Book of Exodus Chapter 30, Moses is instructed to mix frankincense and other spices as fitting perfume to burn, in the people’s worship of the Lord God.
Frankincense is then used throughout other books of the Bible in the preparation of sacrifices to God. Frankincense signifies the upward direction of prayer, the transcendence of worship and the purification of the sacrifice being offered.
The frankincense brought by the Magi, also becomes a sign of that the infant Jesus, is the definitive Priest, the one who offers not flour or fine meal to God (as in the Old Testament worship) but his entire self “unto death” on the Cross.
Frankincense, like Myrrh is the a highly fragrant resinous product of resin obtained from the spiny tree of the Boswellia species and the sap from this tree is tapped, gathered and purified. Today a large proportion of modern frankincense is gathered by small companies in Somaliland for whom this precious substance earns them a very small income. More about its origins and production here: https://aleteia.org/2017/04/24/where-does-frankincense-comes-from/.
In Catholic and Byzantine tradition, frankincense is used today in the preparation of incense and in the oils of anointing. It is fascinating to know what an important part of our liturgical life this venerable resin plays. (Prinknash Abbey has a fascinating array of frankincense based incense)
When we offer up our hearts and desires in prayer- they are “burned” and made pure as incense wafting up to heaven as in Psalm 141:2.
This spirit of prayer and expectancy before the Crib of the Infant Christ, prepares our growing sense of true Christian joy- which marked by the dedication of the Third Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI says so exquisitely that this expectant, heaven-direct prayer meets with God’s infinite love in the person of a tiny baby:
This, dear friends, is what true joy consists in: it is feeling that our personal and community existence has been visited and filled by a great mystery, the mystery of God’s love. In order to rejoice we do not need things alone, but love and truth: we need a close God who warms our hearts and responds to our deepest expectations. This God is manifested in Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. Therefore that “Bambinello” which we place in a stable or a grotto is the centre of all things, the heart of the world. Let us pray that every person, like the Virgin Mary, may accept as the centre of his or her life the God who made himself a Child, the source of true joy.
~ By Anna Krohn