After rejoicing to see the star stop and rest over the place where the child is, the magi “enter the house and behold the child in the arms of Mary, his mother, and fall down and worship him” (2:11a). The nations now come home, in the first-fruits of the magi, into the house that God builds for all peoples, and taste the rest and the abundance of joy that he has prepared for them. As God says through Isaiah:
Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense (!), and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. … These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered. (Is 56:5-8)
The nations come bringing all that they are, to lay it at the feet of the true King in the total surrender of love: “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (2:11b). This is anticipated, fulfilled-in-advance, in the coming of the magi, though it presses on to the definitive fulfillment that has come about in the Church and will find consummation at the end of time. Psalm 72 also expresses this beautifully:
In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him! (Ps 72:7-15a)
So too does Isaiah express the wealth of the nations filling the house of God:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory.” For thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Is 66:10-13)
Finally, the book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of the end of time, the everlasting consummation, in which what is anticipated by the magi in the midst of time will find ultimate fulfillment in the salvation of all nations. It speaks of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Church come to her final consummation, in this way:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 20:22-27)
If these gifts represent the surrender of Gentile peoples to the reign of Christ and the loving entrustment of their lives to him in faith, what is specific symbolism of the gifts that were chosen: gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Every gift reveals something both about the giver and—when attuned and not merely for the solace of the giver—also about the receiver. It reveals how the heart of the giver is itself made a gift to the receiver, aware of who the receiver is, of what they desire and cherish, and also of how the giver’s heart can mold itself lovingly to the receiver such that the gift is truly experienced as such: as a gift from heart to heart. This is true, in fact, of all authentic love, in that it is born from a prior receptivity, a prior listening to the heart of the beloved person, and not merely from my own self-initiated efforts to love or care for others. So many of the struggles in human relationships come precisely from the failure to listen before speaking, the failure to receive before giving, the failure to wait for the heart of the other to unveil itself before forcing my way in or for them to be ready to walk before going ahead without them.
In what ways are the gifts of the magi to the infant Christ attuned gifts? Well, they manifest the heart of the nations by being representations of their hopes and aspirations, of their living cultures and traditions as they reach out towards the fullness of God’s presence in Christ, even as bearing seeds of the Word already within them. And these cultures, insofar as they are faithful to goodness, truth, and beauty, are taken up in Christ, healed, transfigured, and consummated in the fullness of divine truth. This is the evangelization of culture, and also the authentic inculturation of the Gospel. Everything is placed at the service of Christ; everything is pervaded by Christ; what is false is healed, what is true is fulfilled, what is reaching out finds its rest. And all the while, the inner riches hidden in Christ become more visible as they spread out to touch all of the places in human culture that are awaiting him so they may unseal their true richness, so they may welcome the Word that seeks to communicate himself through them.
This is how Christis a gift for the nations of the world, and how, in the acknowledgment of the gift that he is, they also place their gifts at the service of his own divine richness of love and truth pouring out into the world. They place the gift of gold, the glory and splendor of all earthly magnificence, of all artistic beauty and craftsmanship, as well as all created wealth, into the hands of the poor Christ, that it may be his. It becomes thus wholly subjected to the revelation of the divine in the world, and not in the service of human honor and self-glorification. So too they place the gift of frankincense, the symbol of all religious and philosophical aspiration for communion with the divine, of the religious cult in prayer, sacrifice, worship, and all other elements that make up mankind’s age-old impulse to relate to the divine mystery at the origin and ground of all things and at the foundation of all existence in this world. Gold for the wealth of the nations and their glory, and frankincense for the incense of their prayers and aspirations rising up to the heavens.
Finally, they place before Christ the gift of myrrh, an anointing oil of utmost perfume, a symbol of the fullness of bodily existence, and thus of all the humblest details of life within this created world. As Saint Paul expresses it: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to God, holy and acceptance, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). This offering is a sanctification of human flesh, the sacramentalization of the body which, in fact, was created by God as a sacrament from the very beginning, as a living-space of encounter and communion with God. So too it is a surrender of every smallest detail of human life—work, play, leisure, family togetherness, sexuality, pain and suffering, illness, eating and drinking, human society and communion—all placed within the orbit of the reign of God in Christ, and thus conformed wholly to his guiding hand that leads all to fulfillment in faith, hope, and love, in blessed intimacy with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who seek to sanctify all of life and fill it with their presence.
So too, the myrrh also represents the gift of human death, the surrender of human limitation and incapacity—being an oil used to anoint bodies for burial—into the embrace of God, into the redeeming embrace of Christ, who himself would pass over the boundary of death, carrying all of humanity into the embrace of the Father through his redeeming love. Here human hearts recognize that all that they have to offer is nothing without the prior gift of God, and that when faced with their mortality, nothing can last forever; that is, unless it is safeguarded by God, held by God, seen, loved, known, and affirmed by God. Yes, by being held in relationship with God who is Life itself—eternal and unending life—created reality itself can exist beyond the boundary of death, human persons exist beyond the boundary of death. All things will not find dissolution, but, through passing into pure relationship, will instead find ultimate fulfillment.
In this last aspect we have also come to the other side of the process of “gifting,” which we have hinted at but not treating directly. When we offer to God our limitation and death, we see that God takes it up and, in return, offers us his limitation and death in Christ; or perhaps better, he offers us his infinite Love and undying Intimacy through the redemption brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the myrrh is not only a gift from the nations to Christ, but an acknowledgment of the gift that Jesus is to the nations. He is the true Man, holy in body and spirit permeated by the divine. Every moment of his life is a sacrament of God’s communion with humanity. And he is the one and only Sacrifice that atones for sins and reconciles God and humanity within himself, overcoming the boundary of broken communion, and the dissolution of life in death, through the everlasting life of his own perfect intimacy with the Father in the Holy Spirit, in which he makes us full participants.
So too he lifts up all faltering human prayer, thought, and aspiration—rising like incense—and fulfills it in his own filial prayer and in the new worship of his own Body, incarnate as a Man in this world and incarnate throughout time as the Church. He is the High Priest of the New Covenant, who passes through the veil and into the presence of God, and thus grants us, in him, fullness of access and childlike boldness before his Father, who has become our Father too. And through this atoning Sacrifice, through this perfect Prayer, he heals, lifts up, and transfigures the whole of culture, all the richness of humanity’s life in this world, that it may be permeated by the energies of divine truth and love pouring out into the universe, until all is brought to everlasting consummation in the unmediated embrace of the Trinity at the end of time.