As she blew the dust off the small chest the memories flooded in once again. It was the last of the three; handcrafted and finely made from an exotic wood not found in their region of the world. As a young carpenter, she remembered that Joseph had noticed it right away, his rough hands carefully touching each hand-cut joint as he admired its craftsmanship. Tears filled her eyes as she held the box close, dreading the moment when she would have to open it. It was a moment she had hoped would never come, and yet somehow she had known better. The contents of the box were precious. Few could afford the luxury of the myrrh the wise men brought with them to Bethlehem so long ago. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh -gifts fit for a king. She had always resented that last box and had stowed it away in a far corner of the attic along with a few childhood toys and the cloth he was wrapped in on that first night, some straw from the manger still entwined in its soft weaving.
She remembered that starlit night and the strange events that happened as if they were yesterday. Back then the three had seemed completely out of place. The local language was awkward on their tongues. Their finely made robes and tunics were exquisite and unusual in such a small town. The strangest thing of all was that they had seen a sign in the heavens that had brought them across the miles looking for him – for her child – and they bore precious gifts. She remembered they had arrived at the inn in Bethlehem where they had knocked on the door and asked the innkeeper if he knew where the child was. Angered at being awakened again and knowing full well he had no more room, therefore, no way to take any of their money, he said he didn’t know. However, before slamming the door he told them he had heard what might have been the sounds of a newborn coming from the animal stall out back. Much like the shepherds they arrived quietly, stepped cautiously into the dim light and laid their gifts on the straw. Tears streaked their well-traveled faces, leaving clean lines where the dust had been, as they knelt and worshipped (yes, worshipped!), the child she held at her breast.
The news had spread far and wide about that amazing night when the child was born, and she had hidden so many wondrous memories in her heart. Some had doubted the stories of “heavenly hosts” singing to “lowly shepherds”, but the story of the Magi and their gifts had been harder to discount. Their presence in the area had been noticed by many. They had even gone to the palace and met with King Herod. She smiled to herself as she thought about how people had quietly inquired over the years about what had happened to the gifts. People were always wondering.
Joseph, of course, had taken the gold and had kept it safely hidden, carefully drawing from it for family needs over the years. Nothing extravagant, really – their small home in Galilee, a new place for his carpentry shop where the boy and his brothers learned the family trade, and at times they had helped others who were in need or less fortunate. She had kept the frankincense; the little hardened “tear drops”, as they were called, that were made from the resin of the Boswellia tree which grew in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. This rare and fragrant resin was often used as incense by the temple priest as they worshipped the Most High. On a few occasions, like feast days or special celebrations, she had burned some in their home allowing the rich fragrance to gratefully cover the smell of boys and the pungent odor of the animals they kept in the yard.
She would admit that each gift, but one, was a perfect celebration for a newborn King. Gold, of course, was a fitting gift for a king and was the symbol of divinity. Frankincense was an appropriate offering for lavish worship and symbolized holiness and righteousness. The myrrh, however, had troubled her heart, and she had hidden the small chest away and tried to forget that it, too, was a part of the gifts the Magi brought. Myrrh mixed with wine made a bitter drink that relieved pain. It was also used during burial rights, wrapped with other spices around the body of the dead – an image her mind could never shake. Myrrh was a symbol of bitterness, suffering and affliction.
She held the small chest close and reluctantly released the latch, the rich aroma filling the small attic as her eyes filled again with tears. Her precious son was dead. She had watched as he was turned over by the Sanhedrin and cruelly executed by the Roman occupiers. She would never forget the horror of that afternoon – the hours of agony as her boy hung on a cross struggling to breathe. And then, crying out, as if in victory, “It is finished!” It is finished? As if this was it? In her mind he was just getting started. The miracles, the crowds, His message of love – all had come to an abrupt and cruel end. And now, after all these years, she was pulling the chest of myrrh out of the attic to be used with spices to wrap His body for burial -the body of her son, Jesus.
In the years that followed the chest may have sat in a prominent place in the house of Joseph and Mary. Perhaps Mary loved to show it off and to tell the story of why it wasn’t needed after all. You see, Nicodemus, the disciple of Christ who visited him in the night, brought seventy-five pounds of “perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39), and he and Joseph of Arimathea carefully wrapped Jesus’ body for burial and placed him in a nearby tomb. We all know the story doesn’t end there. In fact, the real story was just beginning because on the third day, just as Jesus had spoken, they found the empty tomb with the linen he was wrapped in neatly folded and left behind with the aroma of myrrh, no doubt, lingering in the air.
Author’s note: Of course, the preceding story is a fictional account of how Mary might have felt. There were, no doubt, many things “hidden in her heart”. The Bible doesn’t spend a lot time on that kind of thing, and rightly so. For the purpose of this story I have stayed close to Matthew’s account; however, many believe that the wise men did not arrive in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ actual birth.
The empty tomb, however, is the foundation of the Gospel for, without it, there is no eternal life. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells the Corinthians, starting in verse 3 – “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.” He then goes on to note the many witnesses who saw Jesus after the Resurrection.
This story has forever changed this world, and it has set the course for the world to come. May you be blessed as you celebrate this Christmas season and I hope you will remember that wise men still seek Him.