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Myrrh: Life, death and the power over both

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Today, I commit my first official "act of Christmas" for the year.

Today I return to the manger.

I got out a dictionary last night to find out what this Christmas "myrrh" business is all about.

When the wise men visited the Christ child they brought "gold, frankincense and myrrh." The gold and frankincense I understand. The wise men are bringing gifts for a king. The gold is a symbol of his royal nature. While frankincense — a spicy form of incense used in ancient religious rites ?— is a symbol of his holiness.

But what, I wondered, was with the myrrh?

Being a "word guy," I've always liked the word "myrrh." I remember saying it over and over as a boy. The word kind of "purred" off the tongue. And it was a fun word to spell.

But what was it doing there with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus?

The dictionary turned out to be little help. It simply listed myrrh as "a reddish brown aromatic gum with a bitter, pungent taste." So I went to a second source. I turned to the Bible. And there I learned from the Gospel of John that myrrh was not only one the very first things to be part of the life of Jesus, it was also one of the last. Nicodemus, it seems, rubbed myrrh on the lifeless body of Jesus to help preserve it just before it was placed in the tomb. Myrrh was used in embalming in ancient days, I've since learned. One Roman emperor burned a full year's supply of myrrh when his wife died.

So myrrh — with its pungent taste and aroma — is about experiencing life. But its use in embalming people also makes it about death.

I let the cogs whir in my head for awhile. And I finally came up with this.

As they say on those television editorials, if you have a differing opinion, I'd be glad to hear from you.

I think the three gifts of the wise men parallel the three temptations Jesus went through in the wilderness.

Satan showed him the world, you recall, and told him it could all be his. That would be the gold part. He could be a ruler.

Satan also said if Jesus threw himself off the tower that angels would catch him because he was so special. That would be the spiritual part — the frankincense part.

And Satan also told him he had the power to change stones into bread.

That would be the myrrh part.

The myrrh, I decided, represents the power of Jesus. He not only had power to turn stones into bread, but he had the power to turn death back into life. He had power over womb and tomb.

The wise men's myrrh was about that power over death. The gift of myrrh showed he had the power to change the world.

I'm open to other ideas and interpretations, of course. But for today — my first Christmas column — that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com