Sunday, January 4, 2009

Epiphany 2009: A Star in the Clouds

The piece I started for this week's posting turned out to be too long for a blog and too hard to shorten without losing the sense, so here is just a short sketch of a thought for the feast of the Epiphany (celebrated in the US Roman Catholic liturgical calendar on the Sunday nearest January 6, rather than on the traditional January 6 date).

A day or two ago, the news on the web carried a dramatic photo of heavy brown clouds billowing above the ground in the wake of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. It brought back memories. When I was a child, the mushroom cloud from the first hydrogen bomb tests appeared in Life Magazine (yes, I'm that old). My mother hid that issue from me because she thought it would frighten me. Why, I'm not sure. I wouldn't have understood the implications, although I already knew about the A-bomb. We had regular air-raid drills at school. What I remember from them is learning to fear a flash of white soundless light (by the time you heard the explosion, it would be too late to run); filing out of the classroom and crouching down along the wall with my face hidden in my knees and my sweater pulled up over hands and neck to protect them from burns. It seems a pitiful gesture now, to use a sweater to shield yourself from an A-bomb. I think the drills did give me nightmares, so perhaps that was why my mother hid that issue of Life. The web photo reminded me of the terror a bright light and a mushroom cloud could stir up in a small child.

I wondered about the children of Gaza. I wondered about the children of Afghanistan. I wondered about the children of Iran. They make a discomforting picture in the background as we sing Christmas carols about the newborn Prince of Peace.

Iran, the former Persia, may in fact have been the home from which the three Magi of the Epiphany story (Matthew 2) set out to follow a bright light in the sky to faraway Bethlehem in Judea. Very little is known about them or their journey. Imagination and scholarship have filled in lots of details: they may have been astrologers, they may have been descendants of the Jews exiled to Babylon "in the East" centuries before, they may therefore have know of Balaam's from the Book of Numbers: "I see him [the deliverer], though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob..." (Numbers 24:17), there may have been three of them because they carried three gifts, they may have been kings, they may have been named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, one of them may have been black...a lot of "may have's", almost no known facts.

Surely they travelled through their fair share of clouds--dust storms, thunderclouds, even snow clouds in high passes, clouds of dust raised by fast bands of brigands in search of unprotected travellers, clouds of flies feasting on bodies left on the road by thieves or local wars. A strong Roman Empire ensured a certain amount of peace in the territories within its reach, but the legions probably couldn't suppress local blood feuds, and probably didn't try. The world was not a prettier place then than it is now, but it couldn't broadcast its violence and tragedies live across the world as they happened, so we don't have much of a record to go by. The three travellers must have weathered discomfort and danger as made their way "from the East" to that little Palestinian town.

Why did they do it? No one really knows. Sermons and hymns have assumed they came to worship at the crib of the Savior, Son of God and Son of Mary. Their three gifts--gold, frankincense and myrrh--were all things prescribed for worship in the Jerusalem Temple. (It was later Christian imagination that attached to them allusions to Christ's kingship, divinity and passion.) But the Magi did not come from Jerusalem. And they did not come to worship, according to Matthew's gospel. They came to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. Homage is the honor due a ruler. Why would they want to honor an infant king of a small province of the great Roman Empire? The gospel does not say.

Perhaps the gift they give us is their perseverance. They saw a star. They believed it pointed to the newborn King of the Jews. They felt they must take the long road to Israel in its wake, no doubt at great cost to themselves in terms of time, effort and money. Perhaps they themselves didn't know why. Sometimes we chase unlikely goals simply because we believe we must. They may have met obstacles that frightened them. They may have met landscapes, beasts and men who threatened them. They may have grown weary and discouraged. They may, sometimes, have lost sight of the star when the clouds were heavy. But they never turned back. They found the child, they paid their homage, they gave their gifts--and then they went home. And that's all we really know about them: they followed their vision, they gave what they had to give, and then they left. If they were hoping to get something out of that for themselves, we don't know what it was or whether they found it. All we know is: they followed, they gave, they left and then disappeared from history.

There is something to ponder in their stubborn fidelity to the star and its promise, even when the clouds are heavy, blinding and menacing. Even when they are great clouds of brown dust rising over a ruined town, or mushroom clouds threatening to rise over a ruined world. Even when everything in us wants to turn back and run for the safety of home. Even then, especially then: remember the Magi.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga
Two disclaimers are in order here:
About chronology: A child's memories are not historical records, obviously. We did have air raid drills in school during the Korean War because we lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, not far from the Naval Air Station at Alameda. There was some fear, apparently, that the air station might attract enemy bombing. As I look back, I can't imagine anyone really expected North Korea to drop an atomic bomb on California because the only country that had shown itself able and willing to commit that atrocity was the United States. However, I do remember that the teachers instructed us in how to recognize and take shelter from an atomic bomb, or A-bomb as we called them then. (The more I think about it, the more I wonder that adults who must have known the cataclysmic effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could possibly have dreamed that we could do anything to protect ourselves in a small school a few miles away from a possible target. That makes me think that, whatever I think was said, the air raid drills must have been based on fears of some lesser kind of bombs.) The other point in which I am not clear and did not have time to research is whether the first pictures of hydrogen bomb tests on the Pacific atolls appeared before, during or after the Korean War. The point really is the memeory, not the history.
About the Magi: This reflection is drawn from the story of the Magi as it is told in Matthew 2, without reference to any kind of biblical scholarship that offers a much more sophisticated picture of the story's significance. The Magi are in fact presented as representatives of the Gentile nations streaming to Jerusalem (Bethelehem was near enough) to pay homage to God after the restoration of the exiled people of God to a Jerusalem restored to splendor. See, for example, Isaiah 61 and Psalm 72, whose promises the Magi from the East seem to fulfill. They are therefore intentional characters in the messianic drama of promise and fulfillment on which the gospel story is based. But they are no less mysterious figures of human interest for all that!

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