The Winter Pascha, Chapter 28: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
The following is an excerpt from The Winter Pascha, by Fr. Thomas Hopko
The adoration of Jesus by the wise men from the East is part of the Nativity celebration in the Orthodox Church. Whatever the actual historical circumstances of the event-- and Orthodox tradition takes them quite literally-- the spiritual and theological significance of the coming of the kings with their gifts is of paramount importance.
The gifts of the Magi are of particular significance. They are interpreted symbolically in the liturgy of the feast. The gift of gold is taken as the sign that Jesus is the king of Israel, of the entire universe, and of the kingdom of God to come. This is a crucial part of the Christmas story in the gospels. It caused Herod to kill all the "male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men" (Mt 2:16).
The gift of frankincense is taken by the liturgy to signify the fact that Jesus is God, since incense is for worship, and only God may be worshipped.
And the gift of myrrh is for the Lord Jesus who has come to die as the perfect sacrifice for the people. For the dea were anointed with myrrh, as Jesus Himself was anointed, according to the scriptures, at the time of His death (Jn 19:39-40).
In the gifts of the Magi, therefore, are contained all the mysteries of Christ's coming. They point to the purpose of His appearance on earth. He is the royal king, the Son of David, whose kingdom will have no end. He is the victim, the Lamb of God, who by His death takes away the sins of the world. And He is God Himself, the divine Son of the Father: "Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven..." as the Nicene Creed declares.
The contemplation of the wise men and their gifts is an integral and lasting part of the Church's celebration of the Lord's Winter Pascha.
The kings, the first fruits of the gentiles,
Bring You gifts at Your birth in Bethlehem
From a mother who knew no travail.
With myrrh they point to Your death,
With gold, to Your royal power,
With frankincense to the preeminence of Your divinity.1
When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah,
Magi coming from the East
Worshipped God made man.
And eagerly opening their treasures,
They offered Him precious gifts:
Refined gold, as to the King of the ages;
Frankincense, as to the God of all;
Myrrh they offered to the Immortal One
As one three days dead.
Come all nations, let us worship Him
Who was born to save our souls.2
1Compline of the final day of the prefeast of the Nativity, December 24.
2Compline of the feast day of the Nativity.