In Psalm 45, a prophetic paean to the beauty of the King of Kings, the Psalmist says this in v. 8: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.”
Why myrrh? Because the Psalmist was foretelling that the coming King would die. Here is Sedulius, in Paschale carmen 2.89-106:
Ergo alacres summo servantes lumina caelo
Fixa magi sidusque micans regale secuti 90
Optatam tenuere viam, quae lege futura
Duxit adorantes sacra ad cunabula gentes.
Thensaurisque simul pro religione solutis,
Ipsae etiam ut possint species ostendere Christum,
Aurea nascenti fuderunt munera regi, 95
Tura dedere Deo, myrram tribuere sepulchro.
Cur tria dona tamen? quoniam spes maxima vitae est
Hunc numerum confessa fides, et tempora summus
Cernens cuncta Deus, praesentia, prisca, futura,
Semper adest semperque fuit semperque manebit 100
In triplici virtute sui. — Tunc caelitus illi
Per somnum moniti contemnere iussa tyranni
Per loca mutati gradientes devia callis
In patriam rediere suam. — Sic nos quoque sanctam
Si cupimus patriam tandem contingere, posquam 105
Venimus ad Christum, iam non repetamus iniquum.
So, watching the light fixed high in the sky before them,
The wise men made haste to follow the star with its royal twinkling.
They kept close to the hoped for road which under a subsequent
Dispensation has led adoring gentiles to the holy cradle.
And when together they had opened their treasures in reverence,
So that the precious objects themselves could point to Christ,
They poured out gold as a present fit for a newborn king;
They gave him frankincense as a gift for God; they offered him myrrh for his grave.
But why three gifts? Because the greatest hope we have in life
Is the faith which testifies to this number, and the most high God
Who distinguishes all times, past, present, and future,
Always is, always was, and always will be possessed
Of this triple power. Then the magi, warned from on high
By a dream to despise the commands of the threatening tyrant,
Changed their itinerary, and, proceeding by alternative routes,
Returned to their homeland. Thus we also,
If we wish to reach our holy homeland at last,
After we have come to Christ, should no longer return to the evil one.(trans. Carl P.E. Springer, modified)
I’ve included the whole passage mostly because it is great; it tells at greater length what we have seen in Sedulius’s hymn.
But back to myrrh. I suggested, drawing on Sedulius, that myrrh points to death, so that the magi’s gifts told not only of Christ’s deity (incense), but of his mortality–that is, the gifts testified to the Incarnation, to the hypostatic union, to the God-Man, who would receive his kingly crown through suffering, death, and resurrection.
My reading of Psalm 45, and Sedulius’s reading of the gifts in Matthew 2, is confirmed by the Apostle John, the only Evangelist to mention the following detail in his account of Jesus’s burial:
38 And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.
39 And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
40 Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
The mention of “aloes” allows yet another connection to Psalm 45.
This link between Psalm and Gospel reminds us that the smell on Christ’s garments in Psalm 45, described with such elation, must be the smell of agony and death before it can the scent of life and rejoicing.
Epiphany, in other words, reminds us of Good Friday–and of Easter.