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Frankincense Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Last summer I visited the south of France along my wife and son. Whilst there we went on a guided tour of a perfume factory in Grasse. At the beginning of the tour we were invited to play a little game – a kind of smelling quiz. We had to identify smells in unlabelled jars and set them onto corresponding pictures The object of the game was to sort out the smells as quickly and accurately as possible. The guide said that those who were good at it had a good “nose”. We then learned that the perfume industry employs scent mixers who are called “noses” and have a highly developed and trained sense of smell, being able to distinguish between thousands of different scents.

The Gifts of the Wise Men
We often think of all three gifts presented to Christ by the wise men, but today I would like to spend a little time thinking more of one – the gift of frankincense. We may think that the wise men brought gifts specially chosen as Matthew sees meanings in the details of his story of Jesus’ birth. It may have been that the things the eastern visitors brought were not all that unusual. Traders, often on camel trains, used routes that ran through Judea on their way carrying spices and other valuable things from the Arabian peninsular to lands further north. So perhaps the visitors from far away gave to Jesus from amongst the things they happened to be carrying, or which they had obtained from the traders with whom they journeyed. Matthew hints that each of the gifts might have special meaning as we discover who Jesus is through the way he tells the story.

Frankincense is the product of resin, or sticky sap that comes out of a small shrubby tree which grows at the southern end of the Arabian peninsular and the northern part of Somalia. The growers of Boswellia Thurifera tap, or cut into the bark, rather like rubber tapping, and let the sap ooze out. It dries hard on contact with the air and can be picked off and transported as crystals. When it is heated or burnt, it produces a perfumed smell. But it can also be used as a natural medicine either for blood disorders or stomach problems. In Bible times it was the main ingredient in incense used in worship by various religions. Its aromatic smoke rose from the altar symbolising the prayers of the people rising to God.

The Meaning of the Gifts
The things the wise men gave Jesus are a way of understanding who Jesus is even though the wise men may not have anticipated what others would later see in their gifts. Gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship; frankincense that he was a priestly figure, helping the peoples’ prayers. Jesus was both the King of Heaven and the Great High Priest. But he would only fulfill these two roles together through his death – signified by the myrrh, often used to embalm someone when they died.

Matthew knew his scriptures well, and our OT reading today may have provided him with a prophecy which he saw being fulfilled in the visit of the wise men. They told Herod that they had come looking for a new born king so that they could pay him homage. That disturbed Herod and the people around him because he found the idea of a new king, especially one he might not know about, very unsettling. He was not a very secure person, despite his power! Centuries earlier, Isaiah, encouraging his people who were in exile or suffering in their homeland, preached to them that one day foreign people would not longer come to beat them in warfare, but to recognise their God for who he really was. That time would be marked by family re-unions – sons and daughters returning home from captivity. It would also mean that there was revenue from the traders travelling through their land in a time of peace and prosperity. Recognition, re-union and revenue would all be sources of blessing and an up-turn in the fortunes of God’s people.

Isaiah’s prophecy was not being fulfilled in an expected way, but Matthew felt that in the visit of the wise men and what they left with Jesus, the promised hope for God’s people was coming true.

Sense of Smell
The wise men were guided by the rising star that they had observed. When they came to Jerusalem, they were guided more clearly by the Scriptures that told them where exactly the new king was to be born. When they set out from Jerusalem, their original inspiration, or guiding light, re-appeared. They were overwhelmed with joy, Matthew tells us. Overwhelmed – that is quite powerful! They were just so thrilled that their first vision was confirmed by God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures. They were on the right track and almost at the end of their journey.

We mammals have 5 senses to guide us through this world, provide for our needs and give us pleasure. Our sense of smell is perhaps the most mysterious and powerful of our senses. When our sight or hearing fail us, we can check something out by smelling (like whether milk is sour)! Smells can effect us physically, too, like the power of smelling salts to wake up someone who is unconscious. Our memories can be awakened by particular smells, too – hot, sunbaked paint always takes me straight back to my summer holidays as a boy when I sat in the bay window of our holiday home in the mountains– the memories come flooding back!

Like a perfume-maker’s nose, the wise men were sensitive to things that were not immediately obvious. When they decided to return home without going back to Herod, Matthew tells us that it was because of a dream they had. But they took notice of their dream because they already had their doubts about Herod. Perhaps they “smelt a rat”! When we are careful to notice things that are important but not obvious, then we may not be far from discovering God’s guiding star in our lives.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey's end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.