Today, in the United States at least, we Roman Catholics celebrated Epiphany, and heard the Gospel story of the three magi and their gifts to the child Jesus. I, and probably you too, heard a homily that mentioned the symbolic significance of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold symbolizes kingship; frankincense, being the primary component of incense used in worship by the Jews as well as other ancient peoples (and modern Christians), signifies deity. Again like me, you probably heard that myrrh signifies Jesus’ death, since it was used in the preparation of corpses for burial and specifically, Jesus’ body (Jn 19:39). This interpretation, made famous in J.H. Hopkins’s carol “We Three Kings,” has its origin in the writing of some of the Fathers of the Church, including St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine. Myrrh was in fact used in the ancient world as part of the embalming process. Thus the magi bringing myrrh to the infant Jesus foreshadows Nicodemus bringing myrrh to lay Him in the tomb.
The reference in John 19, however, is the only reference to myrrh in Scripture that is connected with embalming. Jesus is also offered a drink containing myrrh as He goes to the Cross in Mark 15:23. They offered Him this, and He refused it, because it would dull the pain of crucifixion. Myrrh actually is an analgesic, and the ancient world knew it. In the Old Testament, however, myrrh occurs in two contexts that also render it a rich symbol at Jesus’ birth.
The first occurs only once, but significantly, in Exodus 30:23. Myrrh is an important ingredient in the sacred oil that is to anoint the Tabernacle, the holy vessels, and the high priest himself. It had this use through the whole history of the Temple period of Judaism. It retains it today as part of the sacred chrism used in Confirmation and Ordination. As a gift of the magi, it indicates that Jesus was to be the great High Priest who offered the sacrifice of reconciliation for all mankind. Of course, He was also the victim in this sacrifice; Hopkins’s line “king and God and sacrifice” is not out of place. But He offered His own anointed Body in sacrifice as the anointed High Priest, anointed with the precious myrrh of consecration.
The other use of myrrh, which occurs in various books, is as a perfume. We see it in lists of valuable commodities being traded in Genesis, 1 Kings, and 2 Chronicles, with an echo in Revelation 18:13, the lament over Babylon. In Sirach 24:15, Wisdom tells us that she spread a fine odor “like choice myrrh.” Esther (2:12) is prepared for her encounter with the king by treatments with, among other things, oil of myrrh. Myrrh is not simply a desirable odor, it is the odor of desire. In Proverbs 7:17, the seductress has perfumed her bed with “myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon,” but she is only turning her bed into an imitation, for the foolish youth, of the marriage bed.
Myrrh and marriage go together in Psalm 45, where the bridegroom’s robes are fragrant with “myrrh, aloes, and cassia.” Myrrh is the sign of the bridegroom, and nowhere more than in the Song of Songs. This book mentions myrrh more often than any other. Here, I believe, we must look for its deepest significance. From the first chapter, where the Bride calls her Beloved “a bag of myrrh, that lies between my breasts” (1:13), he is associated with myrrh. His caravan approaches from the wilderness “like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense” (3:6); he hastens to the “mountains of myrrh” (4:6) to await his Bride, who herself has myrrh in her garden (4:14). He invites her to come to his garden, where he gathers his own myrrh (5:1) along with other sweet and savory things.
The most powerful and touching image of myrrh in the Song of Songs is the incident of the Bride awakened in the night. She hears the Beloved knocking, but hesitates to open the door, since she has already gone to bed. By the time she gets up and opens the door, the Beloved has gone. But as she opens the door, she says, “My hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt” (5:15). The Beloved has left behind a sign of his presence. She will search for him, but will, for the moment, find only suffering, as the watchmen beat her and take her cloak. When the daughters of Jerusalem ask her why they should watch for the Beloved, she describes him with a series of similes that echo the Beloved’s descriptions of her. Among these, “his lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh.”
Myrrh is the taste of love, of the perfect marriage, of the Bride and the Beloved, of Israel and her Creator, of the Church and her Lord. Jesus is our Beloved, who stands at the door and knocks. Even if we are slow to answer Him, everything He has touched is anointed with the myrrh of His presence. The perfume of myrrh comes forth from His pure lips in His precious Word that calls us to enter His embrace and be joined to Him in the nuptial embrace. Myrrh tells us, yes, of the Priest and the sacrificial Victim, but also of the consummation that lies beyond, for the sake of which the sacrifice is made, the eternal and perfect union with the Beloved.