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“On entering the house, [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Matthew 2.11

I don’t know how familiar you are with Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a spoof loosely based around the life of Jesus.  It was released in 1979, with some controversy – it was even ‘x’ rated at one stage by quite a few local authorities!  I remember seeing it in London not long after it came out.  I had to cross a picket line of Christians in order to get in!

It starts with a star, moving across the sky, followed by three men on camels; and continues with these three riding down a dark back street, and arriving at a hovel, with mother and child.

“Whad do yu want?” screeches the mother (played by Terry Jones).
 “We were led by a star”, say the first wise man (John Cleese).
 “Led by a bottle more like”, retorts the mother.

Eventually the three wise men get around to offering their gifts to the child: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The mother is not to sure about the myrrh. The third wise man (Michael Palin) has to explain that it is a valuable ‘balm’, which she immediately thinks is some kind of wild animal – until the wise man explains that it is an ointment!  She gladly accepts the gold and the frankincense – but is diffident about accepting the myrrh.

Anyway – the three wise men worship at the manger, and exit, only to re-appear almost immediately: to reclaim all three gifts, and dash back out!

The camera follows them… – as they cross to the other side of the alleyway to another hovel, this one surrounded in light, and peace, and with the baby Jesus, meek and mild, asleep on the hay.

But the film continues to follow the mother, Mandy Cohen, and her son Brian.

“What is myrrh, anyway?” Mandy screeches in those opening moments of the film.
 ‘What and why?’, we too may ask.

It seems that St Matthew was playing a little fast and loose with the Old Testament in his story of the wise men.  Gold and frankincense were to be expected, as was the wealth of the nations, as indeed were the camels – we have it all in the first Epiphany reading, from Isaiah 60.

Gold and frankincense were both in themselves powerful symbols:
gold, of kingly wealth and earthly power (recognised even today);
frankincense, of priestly worship and prayer rising up to God;
– but what about the myrrh?

Why did Matthew feel he needed to add that extra detail into his story?

If you read a biblical commentary, it will tell you that it represents Jesus’ future death and burial.  Myrrh was indeed used by the Egyptians when embalming bodies; myrrh is offered to Jesus on the cross as a sort of pain-killer; and myrrh was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Jesus’ tomb as part of the burial.

All very plausible.  But all neatly evading the fact that, in a Hebrew context, myrrh was all about love – and not just spiritual love!  It was the Old Testament equivalent of Chanel No.5!

Myrrh is mentioned in one particular book of the Old Testament, exactly TWICE as many times as in all the other 38 books put together!

And that book is the ‘Song of Songs’ – sometimes called the ‘Song of Solomon’ – a love song, and quite clearly a love song!  Could myrrh be a symbol of that love?

You are unlikely to hear any of the Song of Songs ever read at a Sunday Eucharist – it just doesn’t figure in the Sunday lectionary scheme.  But part of it IS one of the readings set for the feast of St Mary Magdalene!

Now, I’m not trying to get all Dan Browne-ish – there is no DaVinci Code, Magdalene, plot in all this.  But I do think that there is a misreading here of the significance of ‘myrrh’ in the Epiphany story.  There is a much more obvious meaning.

In the traditional Epiphany hymn, ‘Earth had many a noble city’ , one verse runs

“Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth their God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth…”

I am happy with that – but less convinced by the final line:

“…myrrh his sepulchre foreshows.”

I think the myrrh may be an affirmation of Jesus’ down to earth humanity, of his intimate involvement in the life of this world, of his immersion in love with the humanity of us all – rather than a reference to his death!

“Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth our God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
myrrh his love for us he shows”

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