The Malta Independent 16 January 2019, Wednesday

TMIS Editorial: Today’s gold, incense and myrrh

Sunday, 6 January 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 10 days ago

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Three Kings who travelled from the east to visit Baby Jesus as he lay in a manger in Bethlehem, a feast that is marked today by the Catholic Church and brings to an end celebrations associated with Christ’s birth.

There is no confirmation that the Wise Men were real rulers, although Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India. But the Bible speaks of gifts that they brought to Baby Jesus – gold, incense and myrrh.

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Various interpretations have been given on the symbolism behind these three gifts, but they are largely accepted as being representative of kingship on earth (gold), deity (incense) and death (myrrh).

More than 2,000 years have passed since that day and the world has changed so much. But we take the opportunity of today’s feast of the Epiphany to give a more modern meaning to the three “gifts”, not necessarily affording them the same reading as that intended in the Bible.

Gold, for example, is representative of the materialistic life many of us lead, where money, power and possessions are put high on the list of our priorities. The more we have, the more we would like to have, and sometimes this comes at the expense of our personal relationships, with both family and friends.

We tend to think that having a big car, a luxurious apartment and the money to go on holiday frequently, near or far, will fill our hearts. We then try to silence our conscience by giving something from the excess we have to charity, be it for l-Istrina or any other fund-raising event.

It would be perhaps more benevolent, and certainly more fulfilling, to spend an hour or two with our elderly parents or doing some voluntary work with someone in need. But we think that just by giving €50, €20 or €10 once or twice a year we are carrying out our moral duties to provide for the needy. No, it’s not enough.

Then there’s incense, which today can be understood as representing the way we idolise other people for the wrong reasons. This, of course, includes politicians, who are seen by many as examples one should follow and who can do no wrong when, everyone should know, they should be way down the list of personalities we admire. This is because many of them use politics not to serve others, as they portray themselves as doing, but to serve themselves and their ambitions. There are corrupt people in all professions and careers, but politicians are a notch above the rest in this respect.

Politicians are not the only people who are idolised. There are footballers, actors, singers, bloggers and others who we think lead an exemplary life simply because they score a goal or write a good song. They are the heroes of many and, unfortunately, the level of admiration is increasing among the younger generations who live for and by the social media where it is so easy to be deceived.

It would be probably better to think of today’s heroes as being those people who, silently and without telling anyone, offer a helping hand to others who need. It is easy to think of someone like Mother Teresa when one speaks of voluntary work, but there are many others who, without publicity and without uploading photos on Facebook, spend most of their free time giving assistance to people – be it in hospitals, in elderly people’s homes, among the poor or even with members of their own family or friends. Sometimes a kind word of encouragement works wonders.

Myrrh, or embalming oil, is interpreted as being the symbol of death and, transposed into modern times, it represents the bad side of human nature, the hatred we show to the next person, the inability to understand one another, the insensitivity we show towards people in difficulty, that hurtful comment on the social media and the selfishness in thinking that we deserve more than others.

But it could also be taken as representative of our own mortality – if there is any justice in this world it is that we will all, one day, end up in a coffin six feet under. The thought of this should make us kinder to other another and stop worrying about the trivialities of life. We should not wait until we know the end is near – if we are given the chance to know that – to realise what makes the world really tick. Most of the grievances we experience are not worth the energy we put in them.

The story of the Three Kings took place more than 2,000 years ago. But it still has a kind of relevance today.

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