"… they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh"
Through his story of the visit to the infant Jesus of exotic pilgrims from the pagan East, Matthew gives his slant on the significance of Jesus. It is important to approach the reading, not so much as a quaint story for children as a theological statement for adult and thoughtful disciples. Through his story, Matthew seeks to foreshadow the meaning of Jesus' later adult ministry, his death and his being raised to new life by his Father.
The details of the story are well known. The point of the story lies in the gifts brought to Jesus by the foreign visitors, by these foreigners from outside the secular and religious systems of the place, who are able to see what the authorities cannot. Their gifts make a statement about Jesus and his future saving role.
Gold represents kingship; frankincense worship and priesthood. Jesus will be both king and priest. The inclusion of myrrh, however adds a jarring note. Myrrh is used for embalming, and speaks of death. By the gift of myrrh, the visitors from the East redefine and overturn the meaning of both kingship and priesthood.
Kingship looks to relationships on the horizontal axis – between people in society. Secular authorities, symbolized by Herod, seek power, prestige and property – and may stop at nothing, even murder. They do so in the name of freedom, but essentially they are driven by fear and addiction. Jesus would indeed be king, but would redefine authority as service, exercised in vulnerability and powerlessness – even the powerlessness of death on a cross. Paradoxically, only in vulnerability and powerlessness is there truly freedom.
Priesthood and worship looks to relationship on the vertical axis – between people and God. Jesus would indeed be priest but would redefine worship and priesthood. Religion would no longer be what humans do to reach out to God, but would be recognised as what it truly is – God taking the initiative, the first step, reaching out to humanity, God reconciling the world to himself in and through Jesus.
To choose lives of consistent service, and to accept and to cooperate with the prior love of God for all, involves nothing less than the slow death of the ego, and sometimes even physical death. It means letting go. Essentially it involves doing nothing – simply being authentic and open and longing to receive. In the story, Mary and the infant Jesus do nothing – they are simply there and open to receive what experience presents.
Herod thought he was well in control. The chief priests and legal experts knew the answers. It was those from outside both the dominant secular and religious institutions who were free to read the signs of the times, to ask the questions and to seek. They were the ones who found Christ.