Another product that we receive from trees is resin. There are three kinds of tree resin:
- Hard resins, such as mastic, which are generally used for varnishes and adhesives;
- Odoriferous oleo-resins which are soft or liquid and contain lots of oil – such as turpentine and balsam; and
- Gum resins which are a solid mix of resin and gum and contain essential oils – these include, asafoetida, frankincense and myrrh – and can be used medicinally. For example: Pine resin or pitch can be chewed like gum, a fact well-known to Native Americans who consume the resin for its antibacterial properties and to help joint pain. Frankincense is also edible and can be chewed like gum as well as being a herbal remedy among North African people against arthritis. (Source: Owlcation.com)
Amber is ancient, fossilised resin which has hardened over time, sometimes containing insects trapped when it was still sticky and perfectly preserved. It is much valued in jewellery making.
The difference between sap and resin is that the former is basically a sugar and water mix that is less viscous and feeds the tree, whereas resin is a sticky secretion whose composition may vary and is thus valued for its chemical properties and the wide range of different uses it can be put to. For example, I had rosin which is a treated resin in my violin case to rub onto the bow before playing to make a clearer sound.
It was therefore interesting to me to find out that frankincense and myrrh are both tree products – one from five main species of the Boswellia genus which has been grown and traded on the Arabian Peninsula for over 6000 years, and the other from a small, thorny tree from the genus Commiphora.
While the word ‘myrrh’ is derived from the Aramaic and Arabic languages meaning ‘bitter’, ‘frankincense’ comes from Old French ‘franc encens’, meaning ‘incense of high quality’.
When the magi came to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the story tells us that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts. These gifts are heavily symbolic in the Christian story – gold for Christ’s kingship, frankincense for his priesthood and myrrh foreshadowing his death and burial.
Read: Matthew 2:1-12
The gifts offered to Christ also hark back to the Book of Isaiah (Chapter 60: 1-7) where he writes about the future glory of Jerusalem:
“Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see.
For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.
Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth,
but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you.
3All nations will come to your light;
mighty kings will come to see your radiance. “Look and see, for everyone is coming home!
Your sons are coming from distant lands;
your little daughters will be carried home.
Your eyes will shine,
and your heart will thrill with joy,
for merchants from around the world will come to you.
They will bring you the wealth of many lands.
Vast caravans of camels will converge on you,
the camels of Midian and Ephah.
The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense
and will come worshipping the Lord.
The flocks of Kedar will be given to you,
and the rams of Nebaioth will be brought for my altars.
I will accept their offerings,
and I will make my Temple glorious.
However, as I was researching this blog post, I came across a different telling of the visit of the Magi. Frankincense and myrrh are key elements in the Book of Exodus where they are used in the priestly ceremonies in the Tabernacle. Myrrh was used in the mixture that formed the anointing oil that consecrated all parts to make it holy, as well as anointing priests, while frankincense was taken into the Holy of Holies and placed before the Ark of the Covenant where God met with the priest. It was also added to grain offerings to make them fragrant, but never to sin offerings, and was only ever to be used before God.
Read Exodus 30:34-38
It is clear that the Magi were knowledgeable about Judaism in bringing these gifts and the article I read suggested that what the Magi brought was an offering or sacrifice to God – a sign of their worship – ‘They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.’ (Matthew 2:11). It sees these ‘gifts’ rather as being used in an act of worship. The word used means ‘to draw yourself nearer to God’ and suggests that rather then being left with the Holy Family, the incense would have been burnt on a gold plate and consumed. The power of this act lies in the fact that in the Old Testament this incense is specifically and clearly only to be offered in the presence of God in the gold-covered Holy of Holies. The Magi must have believed truly that here was more than an earthly king of the Jews – God incarnate, who deserved their worship. (Source: chaimbentorah.com )
I have wondered what happened to the gifts, and this is a credible and symbolic alternative explanation to the traditional explanation that they funded the flight and refugee stay in Egypt.
Christmas is a time when we present gifts to one another in memory of the story, an act which for many has become the principal reason for the season. While Christmas has, in many parts of the world, become a showcase of consumerism gone mad, there is good reason to sit and reflect on the good in giving, and in the blessing that God gives us through the gifts of the Holy Spirit and His ongoing provision for our lives. How well do we value these gifts?
They, in turn, are reflected in the good we can do to others. So in the madness of the season, may I invite you to thank God for the good gifts he has given you, and to put those giftings into practice – hospitality, encouragement, musicality, peacemaking, generosity and so on, and enjoy blessing others in non-traditional ways.