Biblical significance of the gifts given to Jesus
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. - Matthew 2:7-12
Wikipedia’s article on the biblical Magi explains the symbolism of these gifts as such:
Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Koine Greek these are chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos (λίβανος) and smýrna (σμύρνα). Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are more obscure. See the previous section for who gave which.
The theories generally break down into two groups:
All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
This dates back to Origen in Contra Celsum: "gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God."
These interpretations are alluded to in the verses of the popular carol "We Three Kings" in which the magi describe their gifts. The last verse includes a summary of the interpretation: "Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and sacrifice."
Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.
Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The "holy oil" traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as "receiving the myrrh". The picture of the Magi on the 7th-century Franks Casket shows the third visitor – he who brings myrrh – with a valknut over his back, a pagan symbol referring to Death.
It has been suggested by scholars that the "gifts" were medicinal rather than precious material for tribute.
There are numerous references to these gifts throughout the Scriptures as can be seen below:
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. - Isaiah 60:6
39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. - John 19:39
54 And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on. 55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. 56 And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. Mark 53:53 - Mark 54:1
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” - Matthew 26:6-13
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him… to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: [(Psalm 72: 10,11,15)
The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising… all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:3,6)
In the Middle-Ages, the Catholic faithful used to present, on the Feast of the Epiphany, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to be blessed by the Priest. These tokens of their devotedness to Jesus were kept as pledges of God’s blessing upon their houses and families. The practice is still observed in some parts of Germany: and the prayer for the Blessing was in the Roman Ritual, until Pope Paul 5th suppressed it, together with several others, as being seldom required by the Faithful.
This traditional blessing is still observed in various local churches around the world.
The following blessing for gold, frankincense and myrrh is taken from the Roman Rituale. It was suppressed by Pope Pius V, but can still be found in usage here and there. An English version can be found here. I included the Latin text in the post due to it’s historical nature on this subject matter.
BENEDICTIO AURI, THURIS ET MYRRHÆ in Festo Epiphaniæ
V. Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.
V. Dóminus vobíscum.
R. Et cum spíritu tuo.
Oremus. Oratio Súscipe, sancte Pater, a me indígno fámulo tuo hæc múnera, quæ in honórem nóminis tui sancti, et in títulum omnipoténtiæ tuæ majestátis, humíliter tibi óffero: sicut suscepísti sacrifícium Abel justi, et sicut éadem múnera a tribus Magis tibi quondam offeréntibus suscepísti.
Exorcízo te, creatúra auri, thuris et myrrhæ, per Pa + trem omnipoténtem, per Jesum + Christum, Fílium ejus unigénitum, et per Spíritum + Sanctum Paráclitum: ut a te discédat omnis fraus, dolus, et nequítia diáboli, et sis remédium salutáre humáno géneri contra insídias inimíci: et quicúmque divíno freti auxílio te in suis lóculis, dómibus, aut circa se habúerint, per virtútem et mérita Dómini et Salvatóris nostri, ac intercessiónem ejus sanctíssimæ Genetrícis et Vírginis Maríæ, ac eórum, qui hódie simílibus munéribus Christum Dóminum veneráti sunt, omniúmque Sanctórum, ab ómnibus perículis ánimæ et córporis liberéntur, et bonis ómnibus pérfrui mereántur.
Deus invisíbilis et interminábilis, pietátem tuam per sanctum et treméndum Fílii tui nomen,
supplíciter deprecámur: ut in hanc creatúram auri, thuris, et myrrhæ bene + dictiónem ac operatiónem tuæ virtútis infúndas: ut, qui ea penes se habúerint, ab ómni ægritúdinis et læsiónis incúrsu tuti sint; et omnes morbos córporis et ánimæ effúgiant, nullum dominétur eis perículum, et læti, ac incólumes tibi in Ecclésia tua desérviant: Qui in Trinitáte perfécta vivis et regnas Deus per ómnia sǽcula sæculórum.
Et benedíctio Dei omnípotentis, Pa + tris, et Fílii +, et Spíritus + Sancti, descéndat super hanc creatúram auri, thuris, et myrrhæ, et máneat semper.
Et aspergatur aqua benedicta.