The convergence of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky on December 21st, an event which hasn’t occurred in 800 years, had many likening it to the Christmas star of biblical lore which was said to lead three “wise men” to the sight of the Nativity. While most of the attention went to the star, not much was said about the “wise men,” and even less about the gifts they were said to be bringing – gold, frankincense and myrrh. One question that gets asked by kids every Christs – after “when is Santa coming?” – is “What are myrrh and frankincense?”. Myrrh was a rare gum used for healing and anointing, and frankincense was a valuable ceremonial incense. If these men were truly wise, they would have kept some of that frankincense for themselves because the plant it is extracted from is nearing extinction. Will future “wise men” be forced to bear gold, myrrh and bitcoin?
“Highly sought after for its religious, medicinal and household purposes, it is one of the oldest traded commodities in the world, spanning at least 5,000 years. An aromatic resin, frankincense is harvested from the “tears” that seep from cuts made to a variety of boswellia tree species, which grow in the harsh, dry climates of Yemen and Oman in the Arabian Peninsula, of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan in East Africa, and in northwestern India.”
The Catholic Universe admits that the Catholic Church is a major consumer of frankincense for various ceremonies, and the best is made from the last “tears” – drops of resin obtained by tapping (like maples for maple syrup) boswellia trees. Not only are the places where the best Boswellia trees grow in harsh environments, they’re dangerous places in general, which makes the mission of the Save Frankincense project even more difficult. Anjanette DeCarlo, chief sustainability scientist for the US-based Aromatic Plant Research Center and head of the Save Frankincense project, estimates the trees will be extinct in 50 years or less and the frankincense that has been traded for 5,000 years will be gone. Doesn’t sound too wise, does it?
“Today, we have the ability to go directly to the source, to talk to the actual harvesters and to employ technologies that allow us to track products all along the supply chain and make sure that that is all being done ethically.”
Stephen Johnson, an organismal biologist and frankincense researcher, sounds optimistic, but that’s the same argument used to protect forests, rare minerals and precious stones and metals from harvesting until they’re gone while abusing the workers at the expense of rich governments and mining companies … how’s that going?
“We desperately need the Catholic Church to step in.”
Yes, the Catholic Church is a major consumer of frankincense, but is the best use of the time, energy and wealth of the largest religious organization in times of pandemic, unrest, famine and economic depression? Is there a way to manage the supply of frankincense that is good for all parties without any one being exploited to enrich others – financially or spiritually?
What we need to solve this problem, before it's too late, is three wise men … or women.