There were many Magi that came to visit the Christ child, but we often only think of three because they brought three gifts. Sometimes, we dismiss the gifts as fancy-smancy gifts from kings to a king, but really, the gifts are a large part of the Magi’s story. The gifts point toward what this little child would become. And they show that the Magi did not travel out of mere curiousity; the wise men knew what Christ was: a king, a priest, a sacrifice worthy of adoration. St. Irenaeus also added that the gifts signified virtue (gold), prayer (frankincense), and suffering (myrrh).
Gold is the metal of rule. Throughout history, people have regarded gold as important and valuable. It has represented power, wealth, and perfection. Gold represents Christ the King. While He never displayed earthly power and wealth, Christ is the most powerful of rulers, the king to whom kings bow. Gold is still used in churches and icons as a symbol of Christ’s reign.
Frankincense is used in incense for thousands of years. In fact, the English word comes from French franc encens which means “quality incense.” It is and associated with purity and Temple sacrifices and known for its pleasant smell (hence sacrifices making a pleasing smell to the Lord). Frankincense represents Christ’s divinity and His priestly role.
Myrrh is an ointment used for embalming. Myrrh represents Christ’s death. Emblaming ointment isn't your typical baby gift. It shows that Christ was already headed to the cross, "born so that no more may die." Also, in contrast to frankincense, represents Christ’s humanity. It was also used in incense at the Temple. Incenses used in churches today often have a combination of frankincense and myrrh (and other scents). Chrism, anointing oil, also contains myrrh.
As ever, the Church loves physical relics, so myths about the gifts naturally arose. The Bible never mentions what the Holy Family did the gifts. Stories include: the gold was sold to finance the family’s flee from King Herod, the myrrh was saved and used at Christ’s burial, the gold was stolen by the same thieves who were later crucified beside Christ. The Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos has a golden case that supposedly contains a Gift of the Magi.
The gifts remind us why Christmas is important: Christmas is the start of a larger story. It is the beginning of the priest, prophet, and king on earth. God comes incarnate to be both human and divine, to suffer and to reign.