Now I didn’t always think like this about myrrh. For one difficulty of nativity plays is of course that not everyone can have the key parts. That can create great disappointment in children, even a sadness that they can carry with them long into adulthood. I vividly remember, for instance, one year in a parish when we asked a particular young woman to play the part of Mary, together with her husband as Joseph and their newly born child as Jesus. She collapsed into a torrent of fervent tears. ‘I always wanted to play the part of Mary when I was a child’, she said, ‘but I was never considered a fit choice. Other children, and adults, even teachers, just said I was too plain, and even ugly.’ What a travesty of the birth of Jesus is that! Apart from the fact that no one knows how Mary, or Jesus, looked – apart from the reality that they would not have been white – surely part of the central truth of the Christian Gospel is that each and every one of us is called, in some sense, to model Mary and Jesus. For the great Christmas doctrine of the Incarnation teaches us that God is made flesh in and through the bodies of Mary and Jesus so that we may know that God is made flesh in us too, in each and every one of us. So to deny the distinctive creation of any child of God is to deny the Incarnation itself.
who's fit to be an angel?
Well, to be honest, there was a part of me – and maybe there still is! - that wouldn’t have minded playing the part of Mary too! However, that was even less on the cards when I was young, and I’ve never carried quite the same pain as that young woman. My issue when I was young was being asked to be one of ‘the three kings’. Now that was certainly more fun than being a shepherd. It also carried more kudos than being an angel, though, frankly, some of the angels’ costumes were quite gorgeous and spectacular. But angels’ costumes were also oddly reserved for girls (and I wasn't thought to be one), despite the strongly masculine characteristics of angels in the biblical accounts. Maybe it is the lack of female characters, apart from Mary, in nativity scenes which has helped modern people 'transition' angels into very feminine fluffy aethereal characters – who knows?! I suspect the reality, like the mystery of God in God-self, is that angels are actually beyond gender, and all gender and agender too! Whatever the case, I was never counted among the angels, but only as the third 'king'.
what's with 'the kings'?
The third 'king' – that’s the slightly dodgy one in the popular imagination, isn’t it? The first 'king' – well they're usually pretty magnificent, aren't they? They're usually portrayed as the tallest, and most masculine, with the richest and grandest of costumes, and – most of all – they carry as their gift that which the world prizes most of all: gold. No wonder, years ago, my friend Stephen was chosen for that part – he looked, in all of his bearing, like the Royal Marine he went on to become: most handsome and impressive.
Then there’s the second 'king'. They're not quite so stunning, are they? Yet they are typically portrayed as pretty tall and handsome and often they are given silver robes to complement the gold of the first 'king'. For silver isn’t quite the same value as gold, but it’s pretty damn good. Frankincense too, isn’t quite so marvelous a gift, but it has a ring and cachet about it, especially when it is explained that it has something to do with priests – who years ago had a lot of power and kudos. No wonder, years ago, that my friend Timothy, as the second 'king', looked quite distinguished and somewhat please with himself too. But the third 'king'? - give us a break! No gold, no silver, no frankincense – but myrrh? What on earth are they, and that, about?
The pains of our past eh? Don’t they sometimes reveal to us uncomfortable, surprising, truths which later make a good deal of sense? Today I have a very different take on being made the third 'king'. I actually think, if unwittingly, the organisers of my nativity play got it right. For the third 'king' – who of course, like the first two, is very likely not a king anyway (that's not in the biblical word, and we’ll return to that) – the third 'king' is, in a deep sense, the true 'beyond gender' disciple, with the most significant gift of all. It comes back to that, for most of us, puzzling gift of myrrh: three features of which are vital to our understanding of faith, discipleship, and this feast of Epiphany. Let me take each in turn…
healing, perfume for life and the gift of a 'queen'
Firstly, myrrh is a powerful means of healing and life. Indeed we might even call it the balm and perfume of faith. Produced by the resin, or bled gum, of trees, myrrh has been used since ancient times as medicine, incense and perfume – or, if you like, for health, prayer and delight. It is still used as an antiseptic (in mouthwashes and toothpastes), as a salve (for abrasions and minor skin ailments) and as analgesic (for toothache and sprains). It can help remedy arthritis and liver complaints, indigestion, ulcers, colds, breathing issues, and cancer. What a fabulous symbol then of the Christ who brings such vital healing to the world! Moreover, in several places in the Bible (eg Gen 37.25, Exodus 30.23-25, Esther 2.1-12), in its liquid form, myrrh is a rare and intoxicating perfume. Indeed, in Esther 2.1-12, myrrh is a crucial element, not for a king, but employed in the purification ritual of the queen. Thus, in that sense, the third 'king' is actually a 'queen'! - at the very least, a model of the healing and sanctifying perfume each and every one is called to be, as children of God, whatever our background, standing, or gender.
anointed for bearing suffering and death
Secondly, myrrh is a symbol of our calling and commitment to God, even in suffering and death. Whereas the allure and power of gold, and even frankincense, fade in the face of suffering and death, myrrh supports and holds us. The references to the use of myrrh in the stories of Jesus’ death and burial are significant in this: where, for example, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh before and at his crucifixion, and where a 100 pound mixture of myrrh and aloes is used to wrap Jesus’ body in death. Myrrh thus also became part of the traditional preparation of sacramental chrism oil in Christian churches - signifying our participation in Christ’s sufferings and death in our baptisms, confirmations and ordinations. Again, in this myrrh is not the province of a king, or the male. As the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume formed with myrrh shows, this is a role and calling for us all.
women as myrrh-bearers - witnesses to resurrection and new life
For, thirdly, myrrh is an accompaniment of the resurrection story: the wondrous Gospel not confined to rich men and angels, but which is a gift to us all. You see, if, years ago, they had told me that being the third ‘king’ was to be a ‘myrrh bearer’ - like, not just one Mary, but the three Marys, with other women, who come to the tomb of Jesus at Easter, only to find Christ is risen – well, then, maybe I’d have seen my nativity participation in a different light. For to be a ‘myrrh bearer’ is to be faithful, through suffering and death, and to witness to new life. Sadly, in the Western Church, we neglect the role of the ‘myrrh bearers’, but the Orthodox Church dedicates the second Sunday after Easter to them, and then designates the following days as the Week of the Myrrh Bearers. Like the millions of women in India who this week formed such an astonishing wall of solidarity in the midst of suffering, the myrrh bearers speak to us of life beyond oppression, and the living hope of resurrection.
the magi as all of us - and much more...
Then again, of course, the third ‘king’ isn’t, like the other two, a monarch at all. Rather they are all ‘magi’, which means people of wisdom (perhaps 'clever' men and women, as Aboriginal people understand that word, puts it well?): probably many varieties of background, standing, faith perspective and gender. Indeed I love that the third ‘king’ in that respect is often the ‘black’ one (at least in many Western nativity sets) – another reminder, with Esther and the female myrrh bearers, that Epiphany belongs to us all and that the nativity story is for us all to enact: sharing healing and the perfume of life, suffering and death, and the joy of resurrection.
In the light of the only true king, Jesus Christ, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for the feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2019