Why Myrrh?

Myrrh – a gift to be given back to God

Commiphora_myrrha_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-019Myrrh has acquired monumental significance to Christians, but its cultural importance dates to epochs much older than the Christian era.  During Old and New Testament biblical times, myrrh’s properties were so universally recognized that it was one of three named gifts brought by the Magi to the infant Christ child because its value —  and the honor bestowed upon those to whom it might be given — was indisputable.  This gift of the Magi at Christ’s birth subtly presaged the use of myrrh at the end of His life. Myrrh again bookended Jesus’ ministry on earth when He was offered wine with mixed myrrh on Calvary, when Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea purchased myrrh in extravagant quantities for His linen shroud and tomb, and when His women disciples brought myrrh to His tomb very early in the morning on Easter Sunday, intending to anoint His body.

What is myrrh?  Technically, it is a natural oleoresin derived from several species of trees that thrive in desert areas. The trees that yield this miraculous substance are gray, twisted and gnarled, although the tree may be adorned with flowers, usually white but often yellow-red.  Many trees from which myrrh originates have leaves that cluster in threes. The word “myrrh” derives from the Aramaic and Arabic homophones for bitter. The sharp spines along the branches evoke Christ’s crown of thorns. It is thus clear that the dichotomies associated with myrrh, as is true with so many other heralds of Christian symbolism, existed long before they became fulfilled in Christ.

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The process employed in the production of resin evokes even more Christian symbolism. The resin can only be harvested by wounding the living tree; deep cuts must be incised into the tree’s trunk, penetrating the protective bark to the living wood beneath. The tree will then exude a soft, waxy resin from the wound. That resin will drip and fall along the trunk in teardrop shapes that eventually harden into glossy, valuable nuggets.  The imagery of the sword piercing His side comes easily to mind.

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Myrrh’s essential oil is a yellowish-red color whose scent is often compared to balsam and camphor.  The trees from which myrrh and frankincense derive are related species; myrrh and frankincense are commonly mixed together for their complimentary fragrances and medicinal characteristics.

To further the allegories, myrrh essentially is and has always been used to prevent corruption, and its signature properties are mythic. Myrrh has been extremely useful medicinally, long recognized for its antiseptic properties in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes or mixed into liniments and healing salves for skin abrasion, bruises, aches and sprains cuts and burns.  It is said to be an effective fumigant, acts as an expectorant for bronchitis and mucus discharge, and has been effective as an analgesic for toothaches.  Its properties as an emmenagogue led to its use in past times to facilitate childbirth.  Myrrh has been long been used to treat colds, asthma, arthritis, coughs, indigestion, and hernias.

Modern studies continue to document myrrh’s valuable healing, anti-corruptive properties. It has been studied recently as an anti-cancer compound.  Myrrh also reportedly contains a substance called guggulsterones, said to be effective in reducing high cholesterol levels by inhibiting the receptor FXR, a gene in the nucleus of liver cells, making cholesterol less absorbable by the intestines and easier to excrete by the liver.

Some researchers suggest that the ingestion of myrrh before alcohol or NSAIDs will protect the stomach from ulcergenic effects, and that myrrh is effective on stomach lesions and the depletion of stomach wall mucus and hemorrhages. Myrrh may contain sesquiterpenes, which appear effective against staph, candida, E. coli, and more. And reports of a 2004 study conducted in Egypt indicate that a mixture of myrrh resin and myrrh oil was highly effective in the treatment of patients afflicted with parasites that were resistant to other modern treatments for parasitic infestations.

myrrh creative commons 14778628001_1190d2053c_oMany Christians easily identify Joseph of Arimathea as the disciple who hastily arranged for Christ’s burial in “a new tomb.” Less popularly known, St. Mark wrote that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, two highly placed Jewish disciples of Christ, purchased a one hundred pound weight of myrrh, which they apparently turned over to the women disciples for their use in preparation of the body and tomb for burial.  Myrrh had been recognized since ancient times as a perfume, and for that reason was used in embalming. Scholars have noted that this quantity of myrrh would have been considered unquestionably excessive for the limited purpose of anointing the body for burial, and posit that as a gift and sign of respect the men purchased such an abundant amount so that the entire tomb could be filled with the perfumed aroma of this valuable substance.  For this reason, these two men have traditionally been considered myrrhbearers for Christ, along with the women disciples who actually prepared the body and went early on the third morning to the tomb.