January 6th is Three Kings Day, El Día de los Tres Reyes. It is the 12th day of Christmas and is also known as the “Feast of the Epiphany”. In Puerto Rico (and many Latin American countries), this day is celebrated with the same importance as Christmas. Children may place shoes at the door and grass or hay and water for camels as they wait expectantly for gifts from the three Wise Men traveling on their camels (similar to the tradition of leaving out cookies and milk for Santa.) The family celebrates with a huge feast and traditional Rosca de Reyes* to celebrate the biblical adoration of the baby Jesus by the three Kings, also referred to as the three Wise Men.
“Upon entering the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling down, they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him presents: gold, incense and myrrh.”
The story of the three Kings is as follows:
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the three wise men, upon hearing of the birth of Jesus, travelled by horse, camel, and elephant to the divine child by following a star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem. Upon arrival on the 12th day, they presented the baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The gold offered by one of the wise men is a symbolic acknowledgment of Jesus as the royal King. It was used in royal jewelry and for religious ornaments. Further, gold represents purity. It is not corrupted, it is not altered, and it symbolizes the purest of man.
The frankincense is incense and is a resin. It manifests the divine nature of the baby’s existence, since he is not an earthly king but the Son of God. Its symbolic meaning is the extension of consciousness, purification, which goes beyond the daily appetites. The frankincense honored Jesus as Divinity.
Myrrh, another resin, widely used for medicinal purposes, Egyptian embalmers used to prepare the bodies for burial. The myrrh was gifted to the newborn as a symbol of Jesus’ mortality — foreshadowing his death as a means to cleanse humanity of its sins. It honored Jesus as a man and pointed out his mortality.
THE WISE MEN
The first description of the three Wise Men as we know them today, was made in the fourteenth century, by a Benedictine monk, called Beda. He described Baltasar (Serakin), who gifted the gold, as a black man from Africa. Gaspar (Galgalath), brought the frankincense and was young and blond from Asia. Melchor (Magalath), who offered the myrrh, was described as an old man with white hair and beard who came from Europe.
Over the centuries, the tradition has suggested other possible meanings besides the symbolic gifts, such as the Kings represented the three continents known in antiquity: Europe, Asia, and Africa; which embodied the soul, mind and body. Another interpretation is that the Wise Men were symbols of the three ages of man, from youth to old age.
I often think of the meaning of these gifts as we enter a new year. What gifts can we offer ourselves and others as we make promises and resolutions for the months ahead. In the spirit of Jesus, I ponder how the lessons of the Wise Men, can inform us and guide our actions in the face of poverty, war, and a devastating opioid epidemic. These lessons have shepherded me through my husband’s addiction, in recovery and when he was actively using. Let the gold remind us of the purity of all humans, loved ones and unknown, despite human mistakes or imperfections. Let the frankincense open our minds and remove our judgements of others so we may understand their dual humanity-divinity, and our own, more deeply. Let the myrrh represent our flawed humanity, cleanse us of any materialism, hatred, or violence, and remind us of the fragility of earthly life so we may better care for each other and engage with kindness.
Let us be reminded of our souls, minds and bodies, their interconnectedness within, and the connections between us.
Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions,
For your mother and my mother
*Rosca de Reyes: baked round as an allusion to a King’s crown, the Rosca de Reyes (or Kings’ Bread) is a round sweet bread baked with dried or candied fruits eaten on Three Kings Day. Hidden within the sweet bread is a baby jesus figurine.
Image quote: HuffPost
Image Three Kings: pixabay