Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Wise Men and Myrrh

Christmas in Spain doesn't end until the Reyes Magos, the Three Kings, bring gifts to all the children on the night of January 5.

They will arrive in Madrid in a gala parade, and their royal entourage will throw toys and metric tons of candy at the hundreds of thousands of spectators who line the route. It often rains, and people bring umbrellas even in good weather to turn upside down to catch more goodies.

At the end of the parade, their Royal Highnesses, who are portrayed by alderman, will be welcomed by the Mayor, who will present them with a key to the city, which is how they will get into all the homes to leave their gifts. One of the Kings will read a message to all the children. In previous years he encouraged children to recycle their gift wrap and boxes or he condemned terrorist attacks by Basque separatists.

But first, the Kings will visit a live Nativity scene and present Baby Jesus (usually a doll, since winters here can be chilly and damp) with gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, as the Bible says, though the Bible doesn't explain why they give those gifts. The usual explanation in Madrid is that Jesus gets gold because He is a king, incense because He is a god, and myrrh because He is a human baby.

Why does your baby need myrrh? Two thousand years ago, myrrh was also known as Balm of Gilead, a medicine used to cure diarrhea, which, then as now, killed many babies. Even gods and kings must survive their childhoods in order to reign.

Since the Middle Ages, one of the Kings, Balthazar, who brings the myrrh, has been depicted as a Black African. The others are Gaspar, who brings incense, and Melchior, gold. Together the Kings represent Asia, Europe, and Africa, the three known continents at that time. (The photo, taken in the museum of the Cathedrals of Salamanca, predates the Middle Ages.)

Since there are no Black politicians in Madrid, that alderman and the children depicting his royal pages wear lots of dark makeup. No one finds it scandalizing here.

No one is scandalized either that so much of this tradition is folk tale than Biblical. The Bible, in the first half of Chapter 2 of Matthew, says only that some magi, which probably means astrologers, came from the east, wherever that was, led by a star, hoping to worship the King of the Jews, who had been born up to two years earlier.

The exact number is uncertain, they aren't kings, and their names aren't provided. The baby may have been a toddler, and may not have been sleeping in a manger. The date of the birth is not given.

It seems to me that the best way to celebrate Christmas is not to think too hard about the details of the traditional Christmas story because the story falls apart. Except, maybe, for this detail:

Medicine was among the first Christmas gifts, the gift that we have almost forgotten about. Babies needed medicine to survive. Two thousand years ago, the wisest men in the world knew that and traveled far to deliver it.

Babies still need medicine to survive. They don't all get it, and many die today, unnecessarily. So why are we celebrating? As we do unto the least of them, we do unto Him.

Keep Christ in Christmas.

[Also posted at]

Tags: personal, spanish, website

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