December 6, 2019 First Week of Advent – Day 6 of the Advent Alphabet
F is for frankincense (and myrhh), from the story of the Magi who visited Jesus, and brought gifts. There is a great article by a master gardener about these plant-based gifts at: http://www.emmitsburg.net/gardens/articles/adams/2005/frankincense.htm
“Frankincense is a gummy resin from the non- descript Boswellia Thurigera. The deciduous tree is a low twisted, thorny shrub without a central branch. Today, almost all frankincense comes from Somalia, where the trees grow along the coastline, without soil, growing out of rocks. The young trees give the best gum while the older trees yields are less desirable. To harvest frankincense, a deep cut is made into the bark and a 5-inch strip is peeled off. A milk-like juice exudes and is hardened by exposure to air. In 3 months the resin hardens into “yellowish tears” which are then scraped off and harvested.
Frankincense is highly fragrant when burned; it was used in worship where it was used as a pleasant offering to God. Medicinally it is seldom used now, though formerly it was much sought after. It was thought to be an antidote to hemlock!
Myrrh is also a gummy resin. This pale yellow resin, which dries to brown even black, is from the Commiphora shrub. The Commiphora shrub is a large shrub or tree found in East Africa, Yemen and the Red Sea countries. The shrubs yielding the resin do not grow more than 9 feet in height. The shrubs are sturdy with knotted branches that stand out at right angles. There are ducts in the bark, which fill with a granular secretion that drips when the bark is wounded or has natural fissures. The myrrh drips from the gray bark, forming irregularly shaped grains of resin. Dried myrrh is hard and brittle with a bitter taste.
Myrrh was one of the ingredients of the holy anointing oil and also of incense. It served as a fumigant in the temple and was a burial spice. Myrrh was valued as a perfume as well as for its medicinal properties. It served as local anesthetic and was given to both mother and child for postnatal care, perhaps one reason the Wise Men brought it to Jesus.”
Frankincense resin hardens into “tears”. Myrhh was used as a burial spice, and to relieve pain. The symbolism is hard to ignore. Even at the beginning of his earthly life, there is in Jesus’ story the scent of death. Whatever else we believe about Jesus, he shared with us the mixed blessing of being mortal. We are all born to die.
What would it have been like for Mary and Joseph to receive visitors bearing such extravagant, and disturbing gifts? My children are both away at university, but I still remember checking on them every night to make sure they were still breathing. We long to protect our children, and save them from harsh realities.
The infant mortality rate was much greater in the ancient world than in our time. How many children survived their first few years? (The story of the Magi is intertwined with the story of the “slaughter of the innocents”- that describes Herod, King of the Jews ordering the death of all male children under the age of two.)
As I grow older, and experience loss and grief, thoughts of death are more a part of my holiday season. I think of those who are facing their first Christmas, or their twentieth, without their loved one. I think of the people I have shared Christmas with, who have since died. I also think of changes to life, and relationships that happen over the years. I tell myself these losses make it that much more important to value, and cherish what I have in life. I believe those who have died are safe with God. It does help to think of that. But grief is still painful, and death is hard to accept. Some people might like the smell of all that frankincense and myrhh. There are times when I think it just stinks.
The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.