Let me know if you know this joke: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are resting in their nativity scene. Around them are sheep, cows and bales of hay. A shepherd is there looking dusty and disheveled. And, there are 3 boxes sitting next to Jesus' manger labeled gold, frankincense and myrrh. Suddenly 3 new visitors burst in. In some jokes, 3 "wiser men" show up bringing 3 giant boxes of diapers. In other jokes, 3 "wise women" bring casseroles, child-care, wine, and some formula. The joke is always that the gifts provided by the magi in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew today are not enough of what you need to raise a child. The gold, as a source of money, could be put to immediate use. Yet, the two spices of frankincense and myrrh appear quite random. A gift for the son of God should, at a minimum, help raise the son of God, too.

Now, I think that critique is fair. The joke is more than just a funny comment to share with family and friends on Facebook. The joke also helps us engage with the text and ask the simple (yet difficult) question: why? Why would 3 gifts need to come to baby Jesus? Why would the magi, astrologers from modern day Iran, carry those items with them? What would Mary and Joseph understand these gifts to be? And, more importantly, what would the people who first read Matthew's gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) see in that gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Our first reading from Isaiah 60:1-6 helps a little with these gifts. In it, we hear of gold and frankincense being carried from "the nations" and delivered to someplace specific. The you reference in verse 1 is the city of Jerusalem and the prophet Isaiah is bringing word to a city that had, at that point, been destroyed by the Babylon empire. The city laid in ashes and the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem looked as if would be gone forever. Isaiah's prophetic word of hope points to a future when the city will be repopulated by the descendants of those who were forcefully taken from it. The world would experience a vast political shift where Israel would become the dominant power. The riches of the world (i.e. gold and frankincense – an expensive spice at the time used for worship, food, and other items) would flow into what was once destroyed. The world would shift and what was once insignificant will make a difference in the world.

Yet, the myrrh is a little harder to place. Myrrh was used in a variety of ways including in perfume and as a pain-killer in medicine. Myrrh was seen as a symbol of long-life and used in healing. Myrrh was also identified in the gospels as one of the spices used to wash Jesus' body after his death. The gift of myrrh was, in one sense, a prayer by the magi offering Jesus a long and healthy life. But it was also a prayer that pointed to the life he would actually lead - one that would end up on the Cross.

The stories at the start of the gospel according to Matthew also point towards its end. And the entirety of Jesus' life was one centered in God's love for the world. The gifts the magi brought were not the most practical when it came to raising a newborn. But they did point to the vision of what Jesus' life, death, and rising again would mean. In Christ, God was loving the entire world— including the people who would resist the fact of God's kingdom coming near. And that love would be a gift that would continue to shine no matter what the future might bring.