One of the things that doesn’t get easier year by year, when you’re ordained, is trying to find new things to say about the Christmas story that don’t unintentionally upset people who remain wedded to the literal truth of everything they absorbed about Christmas when they were young. It’s to no avail – especially feeling the pressure to make people welcome who may not often come to church at other times, if at all – to explain that the traditional Christmas story is composite, that some of it is hard to square with other, established historical evidence, that the gospels each have very different, even contradictory, accounts which have been synthesized into a single narrative, and so on. None of that really cuts the mustard for people who want a ‘traditional’ Christmas, and who think that if one or other aspect of the traditional story lacks historical credibility, then the whole thing falls. And even if you do set off down the road of explaining it, what happens is that you then find you’re on a path of almost infinite regression, as you try to explain the difference between fact and significance, how you can establish the truth behind the story, and so on.
The Christmas story is probably the most complex element of the life of Jesus, even in the un-synthesized form in which the two main components – the visit of the shepherds, in Luke, and the visit of the magi, in Matthew – are presented as alternatives. Rich theological symbolism is present, weaving in and through Biblical allusions, prophetic quotations, and mutually contradictory regal genealogies. This makes interpretation of the Christmas story potentially a hazardous exercise. What’s the relationship between historical truth and theological significance here? Why are there radically different accounts in the gospels? Which, if any, of these differing narratives is closest to the truth? Given that the gospels were almost certainly written down in the form we know them now many decades after the events they purport to describe, and that the events of Jesus’s birth were the earliest and probably least well attested of his life, how can we be sure that in fact they give us any firm information about his background?
I don’t think there’s any way of answering these questions decisively. And that’s why, to me at any rate, the Christmas story has always been an opportunity for a creative reworking and re-presentation of the enduring doctrines of faith, which after all has many precedents in early Christian thoguht. Of course, redaction criticism – reading the theological preoccupations of the gospel writers – goes a long way to explain why there are such differences in the gospel accounts. But even redaction criticism, illuminating though it is, ultimately can’t really establish for us a solid historical residue. Jesus was born round about 4 ‘BC’, probably in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, in a relatively humble family, probably to a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph. That’s likely to be about as far as we can go in establishing historical truth. I realize that birth in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem is itself a shocking suggestion to many, but most of the scholars I read do seem to think the Bethlehem location is likely to be a nod in the direction of royal lineage, just as the competing genealogies of Luke and Matthew are. But of course I could be wrong! In a sense, the actual historical facts don’t really matter much, because aside from these bare facts, not much in the synthesized Christmas story finally contributes much to the rather more important and generally better-attested narrative of Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection. But that doesn’t mean the story is useless to us as Christians. It is at the very least a source of reflection about the meaning and identity of Jesus. In that sense we’re free to do a bit of speculative theological work here.
The visit of the magi, or if you prefer the kings, is a particularly good example of the creativity of the narrative. It’s only mentioned in Matthew, and much of the detail in the traditional Christmas story is later embellishment – in particular the number three, the description of them as kings, and the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. If we ask the question – just supposing, for example, that the writer of Matthew’s gospel had heard of the magi independently of the other gospel writers – why this story was considered significant and worthy of inclusion, then the gifts obviously assume particular importance. But what do gold, frankincense and myrh point to? The usual answers revolve around kingship, with myrh either for regal anointing, or for embalming after death. There’s no definitive answer: the text doesn’t give us one.
But I’ve often thought that there’s another stream of Christian tradition which can give some insight into the gifts. That’s the tradition of the three ‘offices’ (the triplex munera) of Christ, a tradition that attributes the offices or roles of prophet, priest and king to Christ and that has early Christian roots, was explored by Calvin in the sixteenth century, and then for English readers particularly featured in Newman’s Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), as it was republished with a much expanded Preface as the Via Media of the Anglican Church (1877). In Newman’s hands, the triplex munera become a way of explaining how, in the Church’s history, the difficulty of maintaining in practice these three roles in perfect balance and tension could lead to periods of distortion and error, as one or other ‘office’ was given unduly prominent emphasis, but was then subject to correction by the other offices. The application of this in particular to the juridical or ‘kingly’ role of the Papacy is obvious.
But it’s not the outworking of this idea in the history of the Church that interests me here, but rather the symbolic or moral truth that lies at the heart of it, which is almost certainly the reason why it came to be predicated of Jesus in the first place. The language of the New Testament in relation to Jesus certainly picks up these ideas, as well as others of course. Think of the discussion of Jesus’s high priesthood in Hebrews, the attribution of kingship to Jesus at many points in the New Testament, and also the way in which Jesus is positioned (though often with the recognition that ‘something greater’ is here). Personally I could well see an additional office holding equal validity, namely the pastoral office – think of the language of shepherding (‘feed my sheep’). So I’d see an argument for a quadruplex munera. But I’m simply taking here the triplex tradition and applying to the magi’s gifts.
These three ‘offices’ are complementary aspects of religious leadership. If ‘ruling’ is the directive, disciplinary, juridical role, it is clearly necessary in the management of a community of believers which confronts many different challenges. But what guides and determines the correct application of the regal role? It is surely the truth of faith, and that’s what the prophetic function or office particularly defends – the apprehension of revelation, its critical interpretation and correct application. But furthermore (and I suppose that really the pastoral function is encompassed in this) for a religious community, there’s also a need to serve and connect its apprehension of God, through worship and prayer. And that’s the priestly office.
I like to think that the magi’s gifts echo this tradition. Gold answers to the kingly office. Crowns are made of gold. Wealth and power are symbolized and effected by gold. Gold endures; it is virtually indestructible. Traditional interpretations of this gift are persuasive. Nothing could symbolize Jesus’s kingship better than the gift of gold.
Likewise, frankincense surely symbolizes the priestly office of Christ. Incense in ancient Israel, as today in Judaism and in many Christian churches, accompanied and worship, symbolizing the ascent of prayer to God, and echoing the sacrifices of the Temple. Since Jesus is our high priest who has ascended into the heavens, the gift of frankincense would anticipate his earthly and heavenly significance.
The puzzle perhaps is myrh. It does not directly and obviously speak of the prophetic office. Or does it? The common distinction between the life and teaching of Jesus is a false distinction when we come to consider his death and resurrection, for he preaches his death as a matter of universal importance, and interpretation of his death and resurrection and their significance for humanity constitute the core of Christian theology. Perhaps myrh is a gift not only anticipating death, but also highlighting that the role of this king and priest will be defined by his death, and (as anyone who heard the gospel narratives would have known) by his overcoming of death.
For all I know, I’m simply repeating a train of thought well worn by early Christian thinkers. Most of my books are currently in storage, and so I can’t readily explore that. But it does for me tie together a number of threads. Christmas in western culture has swollen in importance so much that it overshadows other times of the liturgical calendar. It’s dressed up as celebration and party – which I enjoy as much as anyone. But it is, at least in Christian worship and in the gospel birth narratives themselves, never divorced from the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. The kingdom of Christ is an anti-type of secular rule – it is defined through love rather than control, and its defining event is not an imperial triumph after a military conquest, but a humiliating death on a cross, a criminal’s execution. The baby is born to die. A sword will pierce your own heart, Mary is told. Life and death are united in this coming of the Christ child.
2 thoughts on “Gold, frankincense – and myth”
I am preaching in v trad but also robustly rural Weardale this morning on the Sans Day carol – on the holly as a surprising image for the sharp, bitter and painful birth / death celebrated in every Eucharist.