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Why did the wisemen choose those three gifts?


In the Saturday Evening Post, December 1992, Donald Culross Peattie explained the significance of the gifts presented to the Christ-child by the Magi.

Gold is one of the noble metals. No single acid can destroy it, nor will it rust away, like iron or tin. . .No one can successfully imitate or fake gold, so heavy and incorruptible it is. And it is a metal easily turned to the uses of beauty. It has been woven into fabrics at least since Biblical times (Exodus 39:2-3), for its ductility, as chemists say, is so great that a single grain of fine gold can be drawn out into a wire 1/1000 of an inch in diameter, extending for a length of about one mile. Pure, supple, almost indestructible, gold is indeed a royal metal. . .The expert hammer of the gold beater, whose ancient art is referred to by Homer, can beat an ounce of gold into a sheet two hundred feet square, a mere shimmering film. . . In the ancient world into which Christianity was born, gold was far rarer than now.

Incense was made from an expensive and elaborate formula, containing sixteen different ingredients, with only priests allowed to concoct it. And the chief element in this holy recipe was frankincense, the second gift of the wise men to the child. Frankincense is a resin, from a kind of tree held so sacred of old that in southern Arabia and Ethiopia, where it grew, only a few particularly pure persons were allowed even to approach it. . .To obtain the precious frankincense itself, an Arab cuts a slash in the trunk, as a Vermonter cuts a maple, and then strips off a narrow piece of bark, about five inches long, below the cut. The sap slowly oozes out and is allowed to harden for about three months. At last it is collected in lumps, to be shipped from such strange and faraway places as Berbera and Aden, near the mouth of the Red Sea, and Bombay. These lumps are yellow or colorless, dusty-looking, with a bitter taste. But they burn with a bright white flame, and then there arises to heaven that sweet, heavenly perfume of mystery the Wise Men thought pleasing to God.

Myrrh [is] a shrub related to frankincense, of the genus Commiphora. The sap of myrrh is extracted in the same way as that of frankincense, and it comes in small lumps of reddish-brown resin. But its symbolism is more somber. The word myrrh comes from the Hebrew mar, meaning “bitter.” The ancient Egyptians used this resin in embalming, and hence its connection with solemn occasion.