F is for frankincense (and myrhh), from the story of the Magi who visited Jesus, and presented him with gifts. From a master gardener’s article: at
“Frankincense is a gummy resin from the non- descript Boswellia Thurigera. The deciduous tree is a low twisted, thorny shrub without a central branch. Today, almost all frankincense comes from Somalia, where the trees grow along the coastline, without soil, growing out of rocks. The young trees give the best gum while the older trees yields are less desirable. To harvest frankincense, a deep cut is made into the bark and a 5-inch strip is peeled off. A milk-like juice exudes and is hardened by exposure to air. In 3 months the resin hardens into “yellowish tears” which are then scraped off and harvested.
Frankincense is highly fragrant when burned; it was used in worship where it was used as a pleasant offering to God. Medicinally it is seldom used now, though formerly it was much sought after. It was thought to be an antidote to hemlock!
Myrrh is also a gummy resin. This pale yellow resin, which dries to brown even black, is from the Commiphora shrub. The Commiphora shrub is a large shrub or tree found in East Africa, Yemen and the Red Sea countries. The shrubs yielding the resin do not grow more than 9 feet in height. The shrubs are sturdy with knotted branches that stand out at right angles. There are ducts in the bark, which fill with a granular secretion that drips when the bark is wounded or has natural fissures. The myrrh drips from the gray bark, forming irregularly shaped grains of resin. Dried myrrh is hard and brittle with a bitter taste.
Myrrh was one of the ingredients of the holy anointing oil and also of incense. It served as a fumigant in the temple and was a burial spice. Myrrh was valued as a perfume as well as for its medicinal properties. It served as local anesthetic and was given to both mother and child for postnatal care, perhaps one reason the Wise Men brought it to Jesus.”
Frankincense resin hardens into “tears”. Myrhh was a burial spice, and taken to relieve pain. The symbolism is hard to ignore. Even at the beginning there is the scent of death in Jesus’ story. Whatever else we believe about Jesus, he shared with us the condition of being mortal. We are born to this life in which there is pain, and death.
What would it have been like for Mary and Joseph to receive visitors from the East, who bore such extravagant, and disturbing gifts? As a parent, I still check on my kids every night, before I go to sleep, to make sure they are still breathing. We want to protect our children, and save them from harsh realities.
The infant mortality rate then was much greater than in our time. How many children survived their first few years? (The story of the visit of the Magi is intertwined with the story of the “slaughter of the innocents”- that describes Herod, King of the Jews ordering the death of all male children under the age of two.)
As I get older, and experience loss and grief, and work with families who have buried loved ones, thoughts of death are more a part of this season. I think of those who face their first Christmas, or their twentieth, without their loved one. I think of the people I have shared Christmas with, who have died. I also think of changes to life, and relationships that happen over the years. I tell myself these losses underline the need to acknowledge, and cherish what I have in life. I believe those who have died are safe with God. It does help to think of that. But even so, grief is painful, and loss and death are hard to accept. We might on occasion enjoy the exotic odours of all that frankincense and myrhh. There are also times when it just stinks.
As part of your Advent preparations for Christmas, give yourself time, and space, and permission to grieve. Light your candle, and remember, and give thanks for people, and places, and times in life that you have loved.
The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet is a jumping off place for a reflection.