Wednesday, April 29, 2020
Easter 2020, picture by Chris Cos
None of us need a prophet to tell us this is going to be known as the year of the COVID-19 virus: a year unlike any in recent memory. But I think what’s going to be unique about it is not the pandemic quality of it. No, I think what is ultimately going to stand out and be highlighted as people look back on this year is the concentrated effort of international cooperation to control, avoid, and conquer this disorder. This is a pan-global compliance we’ve seen all too rarely, if ever on this scale.
Why do I focus here and not on the disease itself? Because in my past I’ve lived through several global epidemics, some of them as ravaging as this deadly virus. In fact, right before I was born, my sister, as a small child, nearly died in the Scarlet Fever epidemic.
I arrived a healthy little infant. Then the measles pandemic hit when I was 3 and nearly took my life as it killed so many other children. I emerged with a shaken auto-immune system which didn’t know when to stop attacking the measles. So, I was ever after beset with a variety of residual auto-immune diseases right up until today – my body attacking an illness now long gone. In my youth, it settled on attacking my skin and my lungs. So many nights I could not lie down but slept sitting up, wheezing. No inhalers in those days, just a machine called a Puritron, attempting to condition the air free of impurities, or breathing menthol under blankets, along with other attempts to improve the air and ease the lungs – but all of it mostly ineffective to quiet down the extreme policing activity happening inside me. The skin attack was called eczema, a skin condition blamed on not enough oil glands, and the lung attack was called asthma and attributed to allergies, so, as a little child, missing school a lot, I wheezed and scratched and read a lot of books. I also stopped growing for several years because of the worthless diets the doctor put me on for a myriad of probably mythical “allergies.”
But the really terrifying pandemic in those days was Poliomyelitis, a devastating, highly infectious disease that attacked the central nervous system and particularly the spinal cord mainly of children and young adults, leaving those it did not kill maimed for life with twisted limbs or worse, paralyzed in an iron lung, a machine where only the head of the victim was exposed for 23 of 24 hours each day. Life Magazine would run pictures of children in iron lungs and all us tots were filled with morbid dread. I, the little kid for weeks on end unable to leave the house and in contact with no one but my family, was spared that horror.
Eventually, with God’s grace, like everything else, it passed. I think the main thing that happened is that God’s beneficence gave the intelligence and the grace and the tools to spare us so that Jonas Salk and his colleagues could produce a working vaccine to protect us and the generations that have come since, to our lasting gratitude.
Finally, in my case, my mom and the doctor in a classic miscommunication managed to pock-mark my face from a Chicken Pox epidemic, after which my folks stopped taking me to seek his medical help for several years. I just waited it out. The asthma lessened with age. The pock marks faded away slowly over the decades. The eczema I still have and a short bout of skin lupus a few years ago reminded me my immune system is still on the alert to attack me in lieu of the absent measles whenever I appear to it to be sick.
Today, every one of these diseases that plagued the children of my era now has a vaccine to protect our youth and a concentrated effort is being made around the world to do the same for all of us with COVID-19. My bio-tech employed neighbor tells me (from a social distance) that doctors, studying the genome of this protein virus, have identified to which proteins in our body it is attracted, and, at this writing, are already trying extant medicines to see if they can kill it.
But dealing with the onset of this disease is only the first step. Coronavirus is thought to damage lungs permanently and may leave behind Chronic lung disease and other conditions. One who contracts it may always have to live on the alert.
In my case, such a residual problem kicked in decades later when Crohn’s disease, a late chronic auto immune reaction, set in to my body during a tough ministry I was doing in 1972 in Philadelphia – in a neighborhood, frightened not from plague this time, but a different kind of pandemic: prejudice.
I had just graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, had a shoe-string job as a college chaplain lined up, where I would be earning a mere $350 a month upcoming in the fall, and I wanted to get married. The Presbytery of Philadelphia had summer internships for $300 a month, $900 for the summer, and I figured: Wow. I can get a little more seasoning in ministry and earn a nest egg so Aίda and I could have a little starting boost, since she was still finishing her degree in the summer and would have to look for a call when she finished.
That was the summer that really changed my life.
I had done tough ministries before. Two summers earlier I had worked next to the burned-out streets of Newark, trying to help a church relate to the neighborhood after riots tore up the city and left everyone in shock. Mainly, we went door to door to the houses still standing, recruiting little kids for a daily vacation Bible school program. That was our in and the way we could meet their parents. One night we went bowling with some faithful young black men from the church and on the way drove into the immediate results of a knife fight with a stabbing victim staggering out of a house and falling down before us in the middle of the street. We piled out of the van, threw the victim into the back, started running through red lights, blowing the horn, picked up a police cruiser, who simply pulled alongside and asked, “What’s up?” and then provided us an escort, leading us to the nearest hospital. All the while we were doing this kind of street work, the pastor was hiding in the locked manse, keeping the window shades all at the same level as a witness to the neighborhood of neatness next to godliness. Seriously!
Sadly, after we finished and handed the ministry over to him, the pastor continued to hide in his house and did not follow up with these children and their parents.
But the Newark ministry turned out to be nothing in terms of trouble compared to what I experienced in Philadelphia in the summer of 1972. I had gone to school at Conwell School of Theology at Broad Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia and lived just off Girard in a peaceful neighborhood near the art museum just over Center City in the lower reaches of North Philly and it was a wonderful experience. I loved Philadelphia and looked forward to returning to this art-filled city. But the neighborhood the presbytery put me in was another matter entirely. It was a beautiful area of West Philadelphia that had been traumatized by a gang calling itself “The Breed,” holed up directly across the street from the church where I was assigned. A month before, we soon learned, the gang had stomped a teenager to death, so some were in jail and some momentarily lying low.
Nobody in that neighborhood was out on the empty streets. Everybody was hiding in their houses. A little like today, only more so, and as it turned out, for an even more endemic reason than a renegade gang.
I was hired to co-lead a team of college kids to visit the neighborhood, but only one of them showed up and he had no interest in visiting the neighborhood, being convinced the world was ending shortly and so he was off to Campus Crusade’s EXPLO ’72 (where, in retrospect, I wish I had gone…) As for the rest of the “team,” apparently, the parents would not allow them to participate because of fear. Only my co-leader, a young Messianic Jewish student named Herb from Westminster Seminary, came. He and I were assigned the work of the entire team, as the new pastor of the church, freshly retired from the military chaplaincy, heaped the whole job of the whole team on the two of us.
He snapped out the plan to us: The problem? Racial estrangement. The solution: Step 1: go block to block, house to house and interview the neighbors. Step 2: Find a home in the center of each block willing to hold a meeting. Step 3: Bring the neighbors together. Step 4: Mobilize the block to solve some social problem (his example, garbage wasn’t being picked up; we contact the city and fix it). Step 5: Once we’ve solved the problem, turn the meeting into a Bible study. Step 6: Lead everybody to the Lord. Step 7: get them into his church. That was the plan.
Well, okay. I’d done door to door already in Newark and I knew one thing clearly. Nobody was going to open up a door to two young empty-handed guys with nothing concrete to offer. So, we filched a bunch of camp scholarships forms off the church information table and used those as our lead-in, offering the parents free camp trips for their children. The pastor, noticing the announcements were depleting, was furious when he found out we were spreading them around to all and sundry, growling those were only for church children, but the damage was done.
As a result, people welcomed us in their homes, thinking it was a wonderful thing the church was doing for them. Here’s what we found:
1.On one end of the block, the whites told us: this used to be such a nice neighborhood, but, since these blacks moved in from Center City, we’re afraid to let our children out.
2) On the other end of the block, the new black neighbors told us: We saved up our money and moved out here to West Philly for our children’s safety. But the way these whites glare at us, we’re afraid for our children’s safety. We can’t let them out in the neighborhood, but we can’t afford to move again.
3)So, the two of us would say: We were just down the street talking to your neighbors, and they’re afraid too. If we could find a place on the block where you could meet your neighbors and talk this over, would you come? Everyone said yes. And, on our 1st block, the one the church was on, in the center of the block, we found a young black professional who had refurbished his home with a sunken living room with plenty of space. He loved our idea and offered us his beautifully designed house as a meeting place.
4)Next, we came across a home that had had a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible Study. The JWs had become too terrified to come back and the people were disappointed, so we offered to take over the Bible study and teach them accurately. The family was delighted.
We couldn’t wait until that night to tell the pastor. He was not enthused. “You’ve got to stick to the plan,” he grumbled at us. Oh, oh. We had skipped steps 3 and 4.
Well, I never saw the end of that ministry. I was done in by the complications: 1)The church had been giving me $6 a week for food, but when the pastor learned about the $300 a month from the presbytery, he cut out my 6 bucks. He had other expenses more important than feeding his workers. I was hungry.
2) The pastor, who never once went out on the street with us, had fortified the church with a hurricane fence topped with barbed wire to protect its perimeter, its parking lot patrolled by two vicious guard dogs. Maybe he didn’t have any money to spare because the dogs, who were busy all day terrorizing any neighbor who dared pass by on all four sides, worked up big appetites and ate a lot.
3) The pastor’s church office was set up like a command post. At dawn, he would march into the Sunday school room where Herb and I slept on cots, bark at us to wake up, get us out on the street and then let the dogs loose until 9:00 p.m. at night. So these were at least 12 hour days of ministry where we had to fend for ourselves because the dogs would charge us when we approached the locked gate. I also had no key. I was stressed.
4) Each weekend I took the subways across Philly and then the train to New Jersey, so on Saturdays I could see Aίda and help her research a class she was creating for the YWCA on available social programs for Hispanics. On Sundays, I was still serving as a kind of student assistant minister at our home church in Dunellen, N.J., then back to Philly for the week.
I was losing weight, exhausted, starting to cough. The pastor in Philly began to stay away in case it was catching, and poor Herb, my ministry partner, bought some Vick’s cough syrup to help my so-called “cold.” Then I started to bleed internally. I had no idea what was happening to me: that I had become so depleted that my immune system had been triggered and it was on the attack once again. I called up my supervisor and said, “Get me out of here.” I had him take me to Princeton, where Aίda found a house-sitting friend who let me stay at an absent professor’s house. I went in to Princeton Hospital and my life changed.
Back in Philadelphia, the pastor assigned poor Herb the final details of the plan: invite everyone with whom we were working to have a big day of celebration in the church parking lot. He’d lock up the dogs for the day, open up the gates, food would be prepared by the church people, who would meet the neighbors on their turf, and church attendance would swell.
Of course, the kids from the church had never joined us and the pastor had neither gone out himself nor brought any elder, deacon, lay leader, Sunday School teacher or any church folks out on the street with us to meet these neighbors. Instead, he blanketed the congregation with announcements and fliers. As I’ve matured, I realize I should have urged the pastor to come out with us, but our communication was unilaterally hierarchical. Our job was to report our progress. We were not encouraged to dialogue with him.
Herb reported to me later that on the big day few if anybody from the church showed up. The leaders from the neighborhood were furious and soon stormed out of the empty parking lot. Shortly afterwards, the pastor left the church and the pastoral ministry. The church was left more estranged from its neighbors and worse off than it had been before.
What happened? I realized that this was a ministry done without love. At its heart, neither the pastor nor the church really cared about the neighborhood. Instead, everyone – black neighbors, white neighbors, pastor, and parishioners (many of whom had moved from the neighborhood and now drove in from the outside) – were all in terror.
*But 1 John 4:18 assures us: Perfect love casts out fear. Clearly, in this case, perfect love had not been allowed to cast out fear.
Thinking about all this, I’ve come to realize that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 lays the foundational basis of all ministry. Everything we do in the name of the Lord has to be motivated and done with love. These ministries failed to propagate because love was cast out by fear. All the plans and strategies of all the experts in church growth are worthless if they are not fueled by love. That car won’t move. Lack of love is a terminal illness. A disease like COVID-19 can damage and kill the body, but a malady like lack of love can still the soul and kill the spirit.
What should we all have done? Before we ever stepped out in the neighborhood, we should have brought together the elders and deacons and active lay leaders of the church and done a week or at least a retreat of prayer-soaked Bible study on 1 Corinthians 13, backed up by sermons and plans for all-church forays to spread that spirit of God’s love into the neighborhood. And then we should have gone out together, pastor, people, and us workers.
What should we have studied with them? 1 Corinthians 13. So, if you have your Bible handy, you might want to turn to 1 Corinthians 13, starting with verse 1. I will give you Aida’s and my literal translation from the original Greek and you can compare it with the translation you have in your Bible:
1)“If in the tongues of humans I speak and of angels, but love I do not have, I have become a ringing bronze gong, or a cymbal clashing” (this last is an onomatopoeic word where the sound is like the referent: kum-ba-lon!) THIS MEANS:
Mellifluous communicators who have the gift of gab or can speak beautifully like angels but have no love are just a loud noise that communicates nothing.
2)“And, if I have prophecy and I know all mysteries, and say all knowledge and, if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but love I do not have, nothing I am.” THIS MEANS:
If I have discovered secret knowledge, the inside word that I claim I’m getting directly from the BOSS [and we don’t mean Bruce Springsteen], but there’s no love behind it, even if I can cause a big sensation, I am zero – ¡nada!
3)“And, if I will give away all the things belonging to me and if I might hand over [or deliver] my body in order that I might boast, but love I do not have, I myself benefit nothing.” IN OTHER WORDS:
If I am generous to a fault, even starving myself (like a guy we had at Pilgrim Church years ago who used to “fast” until our minister of evangelism, the Rev. Paul Bricker, put him in the hospital because he was starving himself to the point of danger in the name of piety), no action that is not truly love-driven, no matter how pious we think it makes us look, is anything other than a fault.
Okay, we’re baffled. If all these impressive pious actions are not an end in themselves and are not love-motivated, then what is love???
Paul must have been anticipating this response, for now he gives us a description: love is known by its actions.
4) “Love is long-suffering, love is kind, not jealous, not boastful, not puffed up [or proud],” THIS MEANS:
Love is not controlling like the obsessive husband who put a tracer on his wife’s cell phone to check every place she went and then grilled her on all her whereabouts until she fled to the safety of our police department’s chief dispatcher’s home. Love also does not boast about its accomplishments. As Proverbs 25:27 warns, eating too much honey is bad, as is going around all the time promoting all the good things we’ve done. Instead, we should be sharing promotion as Paul explained in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12: 26, rejoicing together whenever any of us is honored (see also Prov. 27:2).
5) “Not behaving disgracefully [or dishonorably], not seeking its own, not irritable, does not count up evil.”
Disgraceful is the notorious report of church people away at conferences, punching up porn movies in their hotel rooms, scandalizing the staff who prepare their bills and see those charges on them. Or the megachurch assistant pastor who was recently charged by victimized women, encouraged by the Me Too Movement, with decades of assaulting them wherever the church had not installed a security camera. Seven evangelical church leaders we have known in our area here have fallen into sexual sin: six had affairs and one was arrested as a peeping Tom! How the 3 parts of this verse fit together is that they are all about self-centeredness, all about me and what I want: So what ends up in using people includes being irritated when we don’t get our way, which is a way of controlling others, keeping a mental record of perceived slights so we can pay them back, and other such failings that end in fertilizing the root of bitterness we are not supposed to cultivate according to Hebrews 12:15.
Being me-centered in a different way, I think, is also why both these specific Newark and Philadelphia ministries I mentioned failed to flourish after we workers handed them over, when other ministries we established and handed on have continued to thrive. Both pastors and churches had become consumed by their own fears. In Philly the pastor had put his own plan in front of the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the desires of the neighborhood. He wanted their bodies in church. They wanted Bible Study, which he could have led, and bonding up with Christian people, not just rote church attendance. Also, they didn’t need help with garbage collection. The neighborhood was neat and clean (except, of course, for the dog droppings in the church parking lot).
6) “[Love] does not rejoice upon unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth.”
As you’ve no doubt heard, righteousness and justice are the same word in Greek. Justice is brought about by truth. Love loves righteousness. And love loves truth. It hates seeing people victimized and it hates when abuse is simply covered up.
7) “Everything [love] overcomes, everything it believes, everything it hopes, everything it endures [it perseveres].”
You see, love is in relationships for the long run. This means it puts up with a lot of stuff, persevering for a higher reason. It is working for transformation and reconciliation with enduring faith and hope.
8) “Love never falls [or fails], but whether gifts of prophecy, they will be wiped out, if tongues, they will cease themselves, if knowledge, it will be wiped out.”
In the eschaton, that is, at the end of time, all these means of information and all our speculations will be ended. We will be with the source of all knowledge. We won’t need revelation or a special prayer language: we will know. Why? Because of God’s enduring love.
9) “For from a part we know and from a part we prophesy.”
Because our knowledge is limited, we are only on a need-to-know basis. Then we won’t need to know. We will know!
10) “But when perfection may come, what is from [or out of] the part, will be wiped out.”
As perfect love wipes out fear, perfect love will wipe away partial knowledge. In heaven we will be mature in our knowledge.
11) “When I was an infant, I spoke as an infant, I thought as an infant, I reasoned as an infant. When I became a man, I have wiped out the things of an infant.”
Now Paul gives an example from his own maturing. I’ll cite one of my mom’s favorite memories from my sister’s early childhood. My precious compassionate little sister had heard the fire trucks and was told they were “firemen” and she was scandalized: “those mean old firemen,” she complained, “going around making fires and burning everything up!” So, she was given a big picture book about fire fighters so her thinking could mature. I inherited that book and learned early to have a high regard for fire fighters. As we mature, this kind of compassion should be permeating all our developing thought. The mature Christian emphasizes loving. Ultimately, only love not reason will take us to God. Our connection to Jesus is not simply through knowledge; it is God’s compassionate love that gives us true knowledge of salvation and helps us mature in wisdom.
12) “For we see now through a mirror in a riddle [or enigma], but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know for myself [or clearly], just as also I was known” [that being a past tense].
Ancient mirrors were polished bronze. You could see your reflection in color, but it was vague – like a riddle or an enigma. But, when we are perfected, we will know clearly, as God has always known us exactly. So, this passage is comforting. We don’t know all the answers. We’re still infants in our knowledge. But God knows everything about us and still loves us and helps us mature. That maturing is called sanctification.
13) “But now remains faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Now we believe, and we hope, and we love and the last is the greatest. When we see God face to face, we won’t need faith, only obedience and gratitude. And we won’t need hope, we will have complete assurance. But we will always have love, because we will be eternally in a perfect relationship of love with God and each other.
So, what can we learn from all this?
Right now, we’re locked down. We can’t do too much. But we can do something by telephone, and letter, and email, and Linked-in, and phone, and Zoom meetings (if you have it), and Facebook (if you can brave the harvesting), and shouted conversations (at a social distance) with neighbors.
From our store-front Beverly, MA Pilgrim church, every week Pastor Valerie’s been in touch by email and for several weeks a different elder has called us: Catherine, Genny, Joe. The Hamilton, MA contingent, Christine and Aίda and I have been getting together in our face masks for Bible Study. Elaine, a deacon, and several other Pilgrim people have sent out messages of encouragement to all of us. We have personally received Easter cards and Chris and Aίda and I have sent out Easter cards to our “shut-ins.” Pastor Bob keeps the Sunday service up and working on Zoom and the Sunday School and a small group and a weekly prayer meeting are on line. And we all have been praying regularly for each other. This kind of fellowship is one manner in which God’s love spreads. All these are simple ways we can be loving in lockdown mode (especially if we have physical conditions that pit us at higher risk so we have to stay mainly indoors). We can still be caring about each other and encouraging each other to persevere, and holding each other up in prayer, as well as praying for the safety of all those we know in the medical field who are working in different ways to halt the virus for all of us.
So, here are my words of encouragement: let’s hang in there together, sharing and holding on to God’s love, which is the only thing that is truly enduring. It is finally our central message and the only thing on which any of us can absolutely rely.
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/478656/ photo: AFP/Hector Retamal
What can Christians say from a biblical perspective about the current coronavirus pandemic?
Some have cited 2 Chronicles 7:13-15 and called for a season of humbling oneself and seeking God’s face.
2 Chronicles 7:13-15 contains God’s guidance to King Solomon after the temple is dedicated. He speaks to a man who begins strong as a believer but, then, in his later years, will fall apart. Solomon is a model for the nation. God warns Solomon that when Solomon and the nation of Israel sin, their sin results in punishments such as drought, locusts, or pestilence that can be ended if the people “humble themselves, pray, seek [God’s ] face, and turn from their wicked ways.” The nation will be warned ahead of time (e.g., 1 Kings 11).
But, is that exactly the situation now? Is God punishing the whole world for its sins? If that were the case, we should have a season of punishment and repentance.
Why should a Chinese human(s) in Wulan eating infected bat meat at a live wild game market be a cause for global punishment? Rather, don’t we learn that the individual actions of a person from around the world seeking to sell and eat a tasty meal (but a harmful one) have global repercussions? All we humans are intertwined in one earth.
During Jesus’s time and Paul’s time, there were similar events where the actions of one person affected other innocent people. For example, when Pilate killed some Galileans or a builder’s poorly constructed tower fell on some nearby persons, Jesus’s first response is: those people were no more sinful than anyone else (Luke 13:1-4). When Agabus predicted a severe global famine during the reign of Emperor Claudius, no one’s sinful actions were identified as the cause (Acts 11:27-28).
Two actions were recommended:
1 1. Prepare for your own death because it can occur at any moment. Are you ready to meet your Maker and Judge (Luke 13:3, 5)?
2 2. Prepare for this forthcoming disaster by helping those affected (Acts 11:29-30).
We need to find ways to help everyone be sustained at this difficult time.
How can the secular world be more compassionate than the Christian world? The government is offering low-interest loans to small businesses to sustain them. Apartment owners are being asked not to evict their non-paying renters. Even HomeAway.com is asking its property owners to be “hospitable” and be graciously generous to its occupants.
God has allowed humans to suffer the repercussions of their own decisions. Health organizations are asking countries not to sell bats and other animals at live wild game markets because bats (and rodents and primates) are especially tolerant of viruses that can be transmitted to humans, as happened previously with the Ebola and SARS viruses. Finally, now, the bats are not being sold at Wulan. However, we cannot blame only the Chinese since bats are considered a special dish throughout many countries in Asia and Africa.
Our physician told us that many medical staff are preparing their wills in case they die. We as Christians are prepared (or should be) to meet our Maker and Judge because Jesus stands in our place since we have already repented before the Living God. Once we are ready, we need to pray and to act by helping those around us. We have a global pandemic, in response we need a global pan-koinonia.
Prayer and seeking God’s face are the right moves at this time, but let’s do it all together so that we can be a model to the world of God’s loving kindness and community compassion.
What is it about being a Christian that leaves you less panicky in this global pandemic?
We heard from a woman at a Japanese restaurant (before all of them were closed) that she witnessed two men fighting over toilet tissue rolls at a supermarket. They each said that they had to provide for their family and got into a fist fight. Meanwhile, one wife took one package and as she left said, I’ll see you at home!
Why don’t Christians act this way?
1 1. We can pray to the God who created us and loves us and wants the best for us.
2 2. We can be calm because we have no allusions that we are going to live on this old earth forever. God can protect us until our time to be with him has come.
3. We are not alone. Find a church family that cares for you and can pray for you and hold you up.
4 4. We need to remember that we do not get sick by being with people. We get sick by being around sick people, so we do not have to fear everyone. If we are calm, we can use our God-given common sense and also be generous with others.
5. Remember the reasons that you may have to thank God in the midst of this terrible time. We are blessed that:
a. We did not go to Argentina March 13, as we had planned to teach a 2 week Bible course. We are so thankful that we learned from a Christian host the night before we were to leave that if we had gone, along with all other U.S. travelers, we would have been quarantined 2 weeks, the entire length of the class! And who wants to be quarantined in a distant hospital with other potentially sick people!
b. Instead, we can catch up on all our writing.
c. For now, every time we go out, it’s an adventure—we don’t know what’s been happening in our neighborhood. What businesses are closed now? What items have disappeared, and which are available on the shelves? Who has the toilet tissues and eggs this week? We learn the latest news and some interesting insights.
In summary, we need to be concerned for each other and not treat the rest of the world as unrelated strangers.
Two additional Bible passages come to our mind: Philippians 4:6: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” and Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways, and be wise.” These two passages balance each other: rely on God, but God also responds most to a praying believer who then acts with consideration for others.
Aida & Bill
 Please read our book Joy through the Night: Biblical Resources on Suffering (Wipf and Stock) on the 4 basic reasons for suffering. This pandemic fits under a “world of pain.”
 En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat-borne_virus; newsweek.com/peta-launches-petition-close-wet-markets-coronavirus-1494803.
Saturday, December 14, 2019
The first time I realized that something extraordinary was happening was when my friend, Melchior, came bounding up the outside stairs, all excited about a strange sign he had seen rising in the sky.
"Balthasar!" he was bellowing the moment he burst in, panting, but full of information, full of questions.
I had been fast asleep. I wasn't any longer. He kept pointing to the west with a scroll he was waving about.
I could have grumbled, but I was used to his enthusiasms, so I got up, threw on some clothes, got out my spyglass and stepped out onto the parapet of the old abandoned watchtower behind the palace that we called home into the clear, crisp, very early morning darkness - and, yes, I saw it - a strange portent, as if the morning stars had converged on one spot - as if all the handiwork of the heavens were announcing something about their great Crafter - but what?
And that message was moving, one – wait - perhaps two degrees from the look of its bright tail, a steady flight from the east to the south and veering out to the west toward the coastal land of Judea.
I stared at it in amazement, as Melchior was fumbling around for my second best telescope. And then his huge presence was beside me. "See it? See it?"
How could I miss it?
"Did you see it last night?" he demanded.
"No," I said, "and last night was very clear."
We stood for a while until our arms began to ache and, when I could no longer hold up the telescope, I went back inside for my tripod, but, first, I got down my copy of the TREATISE ON COMETS by Chaeremon the Stoic.
I spread the scroll out on my worktable so Melchior could translate it too and we read all about how comets were heavenly signs that – and I quote - "something wonderful and great was about to happen."
Then my friend unrolled the scroll he'd brought. As I suspected, it was Aristotle's theory about comets as objects between the earth and the moon - a nice natural balance to Chaeremon.
"What do you think it means?" he asked me.
"Well," I said, "somewhere up on the shelf I have a scroll by Tsochhiu, the Chinese astronomer who lived some 300 years ago, and he says: ‘A comet is like a broom, signaling the sweeping away of evil.' So, my guess is that this portent spells disaster for one king and the joyful birth of another - a new reign for…," I looked back out at the trajectory of the comet. "Yes, I think the Jews."
We looked at each other. "Time to wake up Caspar," we said simultaneously and we both laughed.
Caspar was the oldest of us three former classmates, but, of course, we were all just in our 20s. What made him unique was he had this thing about the Jews.
We'd all gone to school in Babylon together, which was mainly just astronomers and mathematicians these days. Caspar was always sneaking off to the Jewish quarter in the nearby city of Seleucia (where most of Babylon’s former population had gone). Caspar loved to reason with those descendants of the Hebrews that had been exiled a few centuries earlier when first Assyria and then Babylon had been the big kids in the yard. Now, of course, Rome was the bully of the block. Eventually, somebody - I think King Cyrus - let a bunch of them go back - and then a scad more were permitted to go home by Artaxerxes the 1st – under his cupbearer, if I remember my history right...
But, I could certainly understand why these monarchs did it. No thinking person could help but become fond of the Jews. They're such a decent people. I think Artaxerxes even made a governor out of that wine taster. In fact, didn't his father, Xerxes, who some call Ahasuerus – well didn’t he even marry a Jewess and make her queen and her uncle his lord chancellor? His son might certainly be disposed, then, to be kind to them, depending on which wife was his mother, don’t you think?
But, either way, these Jews really impact us everywhere. You go farther south, down into the Yemen peninsula, and the kings there have been professing the Jewish God since they switched over some 100+ years ago! There really is something special about the Jews.
Well, anyway, the wind was rising now and blowing up the edges of the scrolls so that we were beginning to have to hold them down. So, I shut up my window, threw a cloak around my shoulders - with a good strong hood against the cold and damp of this very early spring morning – then we bundled all the scrolls we needed under our arms and went to find Caspar.
As I said, all of us lived behind the palace, being sages to our king, so it wasn't hard to find thin, wiry Caspar. Melchior spotted him first, teetering up on the top of the tower, peering over the western wall. He too was up already, studying the star.
I was reluctant to call him and get him unbalanced from such a precarious perch, but, of course, Melchoir bellowed out, "Caspar!" so loud the star could have heard him and we almost had Caspar in our laps after he did a frightened little dance up there.
Thankfully, he's agile and we were all soon reclining in his room, talking over the new comet, where it was heading and what it meant - especially since the previous year three planets had massed and two years before Saturn and Jupiter had had that triple conjunction - and now this, the third and final sign: and a moving one at that!
Caspar, of course, had it all locked down. He exclaimed: "The Jews keep talking about an anointed one. A king, no, a god, really. One who will come and end this age and begin another. And their writings even talk about a star and a scepter rising out of Israel and having dominion!"
We were staggered by that news and intrigued. An era-changing god - in our time! It was too fascinating to let it go. We felt like, if we did, we were going to miss the most important event to happen in our whole lives - maybe our whole era.
I kept thinking about what Zarathushtra said. He’s considered by some of our teachers as our founding sage. He had taught back at the beginning - hundreds of years ago, before the populace polluted his faith with its own lesser gods and superstitions - that the One Great God, whom he called “Ahura Mazda,” that is, “the Wise Lord,” had fathered two sons. One chose life and goodness, the other non-life and wickedness. Since then they had been warring against each other. The good one was stronger, the true son of the Great High God, and he created our good world. The other lesser god was evil and tried first to make an evil creation of demons and other lesser spirits, but finally settled on attacking the good world and bringing death and destruction wherever he could. He even killed the first man and first animals. But, those of our teachers who followed this faith taught us that Zarathushtra had promised that good was ultimately stronger than evil and at the very end of the present dispensation a great, miraculous, and final savior would come and bring the Last Judgment and the coming of a new world. All of us were thinking the same thing - could this be the promised One these teachers claimed was coming? But, none of us dared to speak it out so plainly. Instead, we simply marveled at the signs, as Caspar with his inquiring mind into the finer points of Hebrew lore was connecting up all the universal pieces for us.
"Let's go see him!" said Melchior all excited.
"Let's go worship him!" corrected Caspar devoutly.
"This is going to take some planning," I said, hesitating, but I really wanted to go too. After all, where had I ever been? Home in Mesopotamia. Then to school in Babylon and now working here as a sage - each place only about one week’s journey from each of the others. I'd never really been anywhere. And now I was stuck next to a desert. I'd certainly never been west. I was working for a king, of course, but I'd never seen one whose birth was announced in the sky - who was special to heaven - much more than a king - a god - and, perhaps the promised savior among us! It was irresistible.
Still, at the same time, I realized, you don't just march up to a monarch and announce blithely, "Good morning, Your Majesty. And how are you this fine spring morning? You feel good? That’s wonderful. So, do we, so we thought we’d let you know we're leaving, Your Highness. Yes, that’s right. We thought we’d like to take a couple of months off to go traipsing over to see what's up in Judea. Is that fine with you?"
As you can see, that’s a surefire way to fall out of favor – fast! We needed an angle – something to show our trip would be to the king’s advantage – and, best yet, make him think it’s his idea for us to go.
As I mulled it over, it suddenly occurred to me, well, we professional sages do make homage visits all the time. That’s part of our job description as intelligence officers. And a goodwill visit to a neighbor like Judea couldn't hurt, particularly given this propitious sign. Every way I looked at it I liked it. Yes, that would work. I couldn’t wait to tell the others. And I wasn’t disappointed. They both beamed on me, said the nicest things about my parents’ lineage gifts not being wasted on me, made me the spokesperson, and so we had our plan.
See, even if Rome does keep the Pax Romana, there's always a lot of other ways an enemy can subtly interfere with trade or slander you to the empire. And, in the same way, a friendly ally can help your nation. Two countries rising together with mutual support. Yes, I could see selling it to the king as a goodwill visit.
And, of course, he liked us, which was both a help and a hindrance. Like I said, we were all in our mid-20s or so and still fairly young and full of enthusiasm. In fact, to assure our loyalty, he was trying to marry each of us off to some of the rather cute daughters of the remoter members of his harem, children of his concubines. And, although we weren't yet his top advisors on signs and wonders, he was pruning us up for the job, so that we would be someday when those who were there at this time finally joined the fixed stars. Still, I figured, it might take a while – months, even a year - before we could pry ourselves loose and he let us go on our adventure, but I was wrong. As a matter of fact, it didn't take any time or much persuasion at all. It was remarkably easy.
See, everything those days was in relative peace and the king himself was planning to head to his hunting lodge around the border near the ancient site of Erech, just north of what had been Ur of the Chaldees, with twenty two of his real sons and, probably not wanting us all underfoot while his regent was trying to maintain order - like all of us sneaking around trying to pick out our own wives through the lattice work - he decided it was a good idea to send us off for two to three months, since he could see we were obviously excited and raring to go. This would keep us busy and doing something constructive, and – who knows? – it might even help. Diplomacy, we could see him reasoning, never hurts.
The king himself, who was a generous soul, sent the gifts: a box of gold from his full coffers and some princely spices chosen on Caspar's recommendation - frankincense, that incense holy in Israel to God alone, and the ever-popular myrrh, the spice that in Jewish lore had been personally sent by the Hebrew patriarch Jacob to his exiled son Joseph in Egypt (I vaguely knew the story). And now this spice was popular all over Israel for everything from anointing to embalming.
Then our monarch gave us other gifts for the present king of the Jews, one Herod by name, and provided us with camels and bearers and provisions, outfitting us like real royal emissaries.
Then he hugged each of us. Told us we were like sons to him, reminded us that we really had to settle down and he would solidify our nuptial agreements when we got back, and essentially told us this was our last big fling and youthful adventure, so make the most of it!
That middle point, by the way, was a continuing sore spot with our real fathers, since they wanted to marry each of us off to our kinswomen, which, they claimed, was the way of the Magi. But, let's face it - we knew all of our kinswomen – we’d grown up with them. At the same time, by close peering through the royal screens at auspicious moments, we'd gotten some glimpses of that bevy of lovelies who had been mothered by some of the most sweet-natured, accomplished, and altogether beautiful women of the land, since the king had first pick. So each of us told his father, “Sorry, dad, but a king makes the rules! One can't countermand the monarch and stay healthy– not even once!” And so far that ploy was working.
Well, that was the end of the audience, so we bowed down low before our sovereign, hugged his feet, wished him the blessings of three adopted sons to a beloved father, blew surreptitious kisses to the girls huddled behind the screens who all giggled, and we set out to follow the comet, which had moved perceptibly farther now toward the western horizon but was still quite discernible in the quiet sky. And, we reasoned, having followed it to its destination, we were set to see a god.
The last days of preparation were hectic ones for the route we had to take was down the old Dumah trade road out across the wilderness. Every road between here and Israel, of course, led across the desert – but, being spring, the caravans were starting up again. We only had to wait a week for one, because, of course, you can't go by yourself. But, even with that little wait time, we were chafing at our bits like a bunch of spring camels.
By now, the king had gone hunting. The regent was in charge and he didn't have the time of day for us, so we were free to pack and repack and, when the day of departure finally came, we were there hours before the rest of the caravan, our mounts stomping and snorting, as eager to go as we were.
The old Dumah route runs across a wasteland of stone and sand and tiered hills and nomads and precious few oases. Rabbah, the first sign of fertile ground, is a long way off and the far outpost of the Hebrews. The desert nights are cold as bronze and the days hot as flame and we nearly cheered aloud as the swept plains of wind and sand and wilderness began to break up into scrub shrubs and short grass.
Soon enough we were straining to glimpse the bright fig and olive orchards in the valley where the flowing Jabbock River first rises as a spring and the flocks of sheep dotting the hillsides signal the notoriously fabled Rabbah, the old center of the Ammonite kingdom, but now oddly called by some by its Greek name, “Philadelphia,”“the city of brotherly love.” Intended by its inhabitants to be the welcome mat as the first great caravan center off the desert, it was the Dumah trade route’s destination.
Well, Rabbah was as I’d been warned. “Brotherly love” looked rather thin here. This town was less like a welcoming prince and more like a street child, thrown out to survive on its own devices, abandoned on the border. Now grown crafty, fierce, and dissolute, it rushed up on visitors, plucking at your sleeve, suggesting every conceivable way to get your money. Our caravan was all too willing to rest up and waste a week in its fleshpots after a month in the desert, eating dust, and stepping over scorpions, but we were anxious to press on.
Besides, our caravan of merchants was planning next to wind north along the usual route to Gerasa, then up to Damascus in Syria, while the star was pointing down past Jericho. So, we left on our own and skirted around the tip of the fabled Dead Sea - it really does exist!- and we headed steadily, I might now say inevitably, toward the ancient capital of the Hebrew nation, Jerusalem. Jerusalem: legendary among the Jews we'd met back in Babylon and Seleucia.
The star was still as resplendent in the early morning sky as when we'd first seen it and still moving one to two degrees a day steadily from the east to the southwest.
We had all traded in our camels for new mounts in Rabbah, swift, sleek horses and sturdy little pack mules that knew the wilderness and shortened our travel time. So, with several days cut off, we were soon riding through the city’s outskirts - not desert exactly, but plenty of wilderness that lay around it. And, finally, there ahead loomed up the dusty ancient gates of Jerusalem itself - Salem of the Jews - the Hebrew city of peace.
Outside those gates, we stopped to take it all in.
But, this was not as tranquil an experience as you might think, since a bunch of street hawkers were already thronging about and crowding us, as they jostled each other, waving at us every conceivable item one could ever think of buying.
But, we ignored them all and managed to reorganize our retinue as best we could to look like a true diplomatic mission. And shortly, with our servants in the lead, bearing our small but attractive and costly gifts for Herod from our king, we squeezed through the gates without trampling a single one of the street sellers and beggars and with each of us riding in as stately a style as we could muster, we entered Jerusalem.
The bored residents regarded us as I was afraid they might as yet one more lower level pack of sycophants - from who knows where - here to curry some favor or other from Herod (and lots of luck with that bootless mission), but still maybe good for a couple of shekels and so they called to us from their street stands with false camaraderie.
But, we rode on, determined to do what we had set our minds to do, veer neither to the left nor to the right, but steadily onward to present ourselves at the palace.
Let me tell you, the years spent in and out of Seleucia and the recent trip to Rabbah was good preparation to keep some of our star-struck gaping to a minimum. We cantered through those narrow streets of the city, pressed on every side right up to the palace gates. And, as we slowly progressed, I became increasingly aware from their speech and what they were offering us that the Jews in Jerusalem were very different from the Jews we'd met out in Babylon with their easy interest in astrology and their get-along attitude, always eager to please. This was a much fiercer lot.
That impression became more pronounced when we were halted at the entrance of the palace. Solemn, no-nonsense guards looked us over silently for a while, sized us up correctly, I think, as a bunch of young magi from some distant kingdom out on a lark, and then stared off into the distance, effectively holding us in place, as much with their lack of regard as with their poised but ready shields and spears. The lower level officer who was bundled down to greet us and send us packing was certainly considerate enough, but obviously no great shakes in the palace with no real power. "And your visit is in regards to what?" he asked politely.
"Actually," Caspar said - now our ad hoc spokesmen since we were dealing with Jews - "we were wondering, where is the one born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and we came to worship him."
The lackey blinked at him, gasped, and said suddenly, "Excuse me," and dashed rapidly back into the palace.
We sat there looking at each other, all of us still mounted, our steeds snorting and stamping and evidently wondering themselves if they were ever going to get food and rest or were they just going to stand there until they fell down, whereupon they would simply lay unattended until they congealed. At least that’s what we were wondering.
But, within two small notches on the sundial he was back with a complete change of demeanor. Now he was hurriedly escorting us in to refreshments and shortly - within an unbelievably brief space of time – before the servants even had a chance to wash our feet – we were ushered into the actual presence of King Herod himself.
Of course, it could have been simply a very strange protocol. Officials, even lower level ones as ourselves, couldn't very well pass through someone else's domain and not pay one's respects - especially given our two countries’ strained relations in the past. We had to see him. And, as well, on his part, King Herod had to entertain traveling emissaries, as it was good policy to let us stop by and pay him court, even if he made us wait a month while assistants to assistants proferred increasingly elaborate excuses. Sometimes, of course, those amenities finally did get lost with protocol officers bowing and scraping and apologizing on both sides - but not this time! Not at all! Herod was anxious - no, eager - no, actually he was falling all over himself to see us.
And what did we see? King Herod, the Jews in Babylon had told us, had been a great warrior in his youth, a relentless hunter whose lance and arrow never missed and, being young ourselves, though of a more sedentary persuasion, we were searching to see a hint of that. Had we been a little more seasoned, we might have realized we were confronting instead a loathsome weasel of a man, as unctuous as a snail and as deadly as a pit viper. That despot would murder his own heir, if he thought him a security threat, and, indeed, he had done just that - repeatedly! He hunched down in the middle of his domain spinning out his snares and traps so that traveling through his kingdom was like trying to negotiate a huge and sticky web of a most venomous spider. Everywhere you turned, you got caught in one of his intrigues.
We, of course, were totally innocent and oblivious to all this. Herod met us with what we learned afterwards was the usual paranoia - his royal reception a thinly veiled interrogation ordeal to ferret out what we were up to on his sorry sand hill.
Within five minutes, I found myself longing for the green streams of Mesopotamia, even for the desert and the fatherly king I had been so eager to leave behind. This harsh half-wilderness of Judea was breeding some strange, pathetic, troubled leaders, the worst of whom was Herod. The remnants of a great warrior tribe led by an unpredictable madman who saw assassins lurking in every shadow – and for good reason, given his record, as we learned afterward.
Well, he did spend most of the time pumping us for information. But, we had nothing to hide. Openly we told him about the star, the prophecy, the coming king. At that last point, he sat bolt upright and the color drained from his face. Suddenly, he was barking orders at his underlings. Gone was the gracious host and out was the madman in full display.
His scribes were bustling about, unrolling a library of scrolls - and people were piling up on every side, pouring like ants out of the corridors into the throne room.
He called together his entire court of sages: all the high priests past and present, all his scribes. See, there were nearly a dozen of us, what with Melchior, Caspar, and me with all our retinue, our bearers and servants, but we were dwarfed by the mob Herod summoned up.
And the common denominator running through the whole lot of them was fear. All of them. They were terrified.
Herod, we learned afterward, was not even a Jew but an Idumean, one whose family had converted to Judaism, so more a cousin to the Jews, that is, an Edomite on his father's side and an Arab on his mother's side, a kinship he paraded in front of us. His strategy was clearly to use his Gentile heritage (as the Jews called anyone who was not a Jew) as a wedge entitling him to pry all the information out of us that we knew.
The funny thing is, we've learned since we've been home - on very good authority - that Herod's lineage might actually be vaguer than he let on. His grandfather, another Herod, was from Ashkelon, a former Philistine city, renowned for its temple to Aphrodite, sacked by the Scythians and the Babylonians, taken over by Tyre, then the Greeks under Alexander, and finally the Romans. It was never basically a Hebrew city. In fact, I heard several times from the merchants around the campfires that his grandfather Herod was a temple slave to Apollo, whose son, Antipater, this Herod's father, was kidnapped by Idumean bandits. Granddad was too dirt poor to ransom him and the bandits were stuck bringing the kid up. Caspar, of course, scoffed at the account, claiming he’d never heard anything like that from the Seleucian Jews. But, I half believe the rumor, because Antipater, who had a reputation for being seditious, certainly had passed on plundering ways to the current Herod. A more scurrilous bandit I've never found since on either throne or scaffold!
He certainly wasn't eligible to be king of Judea. No wonder he was so worried about a legitimate contender!
"Where is the Anointed One to be born?" he demanded.
Some king. He didn't even know the sacred scriptures of the people he presumed to rule.
The chief priests got out a double set of scrolls, one in the Hebrew language that only Caspar among our party could kind of puzzle through and then a translation in Greek that we all knew - since we were speaking that international language to Herod.
The scribes found the place and the current high priest, a permanently worried looking man who had probably aged rapidly trying to placate Herod, said in an anxious but firm tone: "In Bethlehem of the Jews" (I wondered later if the old guy was taking a muted shot at this usurper king with that designation - but without blinking an eye or giving himself away, if he was - he retreated onto the safe support of the sacred text). "For just as it is written in the prophet: ‘and you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means insignificant in the reckoning of Judah, for out of you will come the reckoner [or the ruler] who will shepherd my people Israel.’"
"That's Micah the Prophet," hissed Caspar in my ear. "I recognize that! I should have remembered it. The Jews back in Babylon were always prattling about that. Can you imagine? It came true!" He stopped for the silence in the room was so profound it was pressing against our hearts.
The whole assembly was hushed, hovering with a palpable fear. And they were all staring at Herod.
"Dismissed!" he barked and the lower level official rushed us out as the rest scattered down the hallways.
We were packed into some rather nice rooms and left unceremoniously to our own desserts until late that night when we were suddenly summarily summoned back to Herod and that's when the real pumping for information took place.
Herod was by himself with only eight bodyguards just out of earshot and we four sat down to a table with a banquet fit for our own king piled before us.
We stuffed ourselves, since we only had had those refreshments way back in mid morning, but Herod didn't eat at all. He just kept plying us with question after question, wanting the most candid detail. He seemed particularly interested in the first two celestial signs we'd seen before the comet and wanted to know in precise detail:
· the exact time of the first sign: the triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter two years previously;
· the precise moment Mars joined them for the three planet massing;
· which of us saw the comet first, at what hour and on what date particularly and where exactly in the star-field it was;
· how fast we calculated it was traveling;
· where precisely it appeared to be heading;
· and on and on and on.
He kept reminding us of his Gentile connections and spoke in the most affectionate terms of our "dear king," though I know for a fact our monarch had never met him, but we were there to be amiable and would have answered him anyway without any ruse - which we did - fully - and presented our gifts, which we'd forgotten in the rush before, and tried to be good peace emissaries.
Basically, he ignored everything except the answers to his questions and, then, when he'd asked each of them about twenty times, he sat back and his demeanor changed entirely. He suddenly dropped the grand inquisitor mode and got extremely friendly and full of that fake kind of chumminess that a camel trader has - you know what I mean!- and with the most sickening display of piety. Then he draped his arm around Caspar's thin shoulder and confided to us in his most cordial and ingratiating manner: "Go and make a careful search for information concerning the child - and as soon as you discover it, send to me that I may come and worship him."
With that free access to his countryside, Herod sent us along, and we didn't hesitate - everyone of us wanted to be out of his lair and on our way as quickly as possible.
The next morning we were up in the dark and there was the star almost vertical - like a sword in the sky – pointing to a spot just beyond the city.
After all we'd done in these last two months, this final leg of our journey was a remarkably swift one. Little Bethlehem, the "house of bread," as the name means in their Hebrew language, was only six miles due south of Jerusalem. We covered it in two hours (most of which was spent trying to get out of Jerusalem!) and were entering the town just as some people were still waking up.
It didn't take too long to discover whom the celestial sword was singling out, for the first person we accosted was a garrulous old man up to fetch fire wood, who, upon hearing our mission, pointed immediately to a small house up an adjoining street. He told us a most remarkable tale about the baby born recently in the stable of the local inn, a sturdy enough stucco over wood structure (as were most of the simple houses) with a hollowed out cave behind it for the animals. Local shepherds he knew personally all his life had sworn to an astonishing account of angels appearing in the sky, and the townspeople, who had watched the comet with wonder these past months as it came to stand over their city, had no problem believing them.
He left us a very happy man, scurrying back into his home to show his family the collection of 3 gold coins we gave him, each of us handing him one in turn along with our thank yous.
The street he pointed to was a simple, small-town lane and our nearly a dozen mules and horses thumping down it awoke the rest of the citizenry.
I was almost beside myself with excitement and I could see Caspar and Melchior were bursting with great joy. We had found our king.
We dismounted and crowded around the entrance, as the door opened and a common peasant man in a homespun coat looked us over with a milder surprise than I expected and simply motioned us in. I guess he was getting used to miracles.
Inside was very dark, but full of moving shadows chased fitfully by the flickering light of a little clay lamp set in a cubbyhole in the wall. Throughout the room it spread a sweet, though slightly rancid, smell of old olive oil. And beside a simple rude chest, on a stool, sat a young girl of about sixteen or seventeen, and in her loving embrace was a tiny child, but more than an infant and, perhaps, more than simply a child.
The babe was just months old. I couldn't calculate the ages of children, being not yet married, but its gaze was so serious and grave and steady.
It looked at large Melchior first and then at me and fully at Caspar, who immediately fell to his knees as we all did.
I could feel a radiance - as if the sword of fire above it, fading in the dawn sky, had poured its light into this tiny figure - as if heaven and earth met in it and cast a light of truth and life around everything he touched, everyone who entered his presence. When I saw him, I was not amazed that angels had heralded his birth, as heaven signaled his coming. And I also knew instinctively why Herod had feared him. Rightly, he should. This child spelled the end of Herod's reign, in fact the end of every merely earthly rule. In the glory that l sensed about him, I felt the Presence of something so much greater than a king. I knew, as Caspar had known all along, that we were in the presence, not just of a god, but of the high God, present somehow on earth as in heaven.
I saw what Zarathushtra had glimpsed, what Micah had prophesied, the great and final Judge and Savior here in this little house, in this little alley, in this little town at the center of the universe.
They gave us simple refreshments: water the young mother insisted on fetching from the village well and barley bread, olives, and fruit, with salt on the side, which her spouse provided from what was obviously to be their morning meal.
We presented our king's treasure boxes of gold and the spices. They thanked us in Greek in the most humble manner (though they spoke to each other in Aramaic) and the baby regarded each of us so seriously and yet so gently as if he knew us somehow by name. Through the long day, we sat with them and even played with the little one and - wonder of wonders - saw him smile. It was an unforgettable moment.
At length, toward dusk, full of the goodwill of heaven and on first name basis with this delightful, precious, holy family, we sought out the inn where the child had been born and took rooms for the night, stabling our animals in the very stalls that had witnessed his birth.
That night we expected sweet and pleasant dreams. Far from it!
Each of us was shocked out of sleep by a simultaneous dream of horror, coldblooded murder of that precious child by that devil Herod.
Caspar ran back literally on foot to rouse up the family and tell them in no uncertain terms what heaven had revealed to us.
We learned later from a reliable source that, as soon as we'd left them, the husband, Joseph, received the same portentous dream, too, and, packing up their meager belongings, with our gifts as a stake for the trip, within a few days, they were heading toward Egypt and safety.
As for us, we roused our exhausted servants out of their sleep and, buying all the provisions left in the inn from the drowsy but happily greedy proprietors, we took hurried directions and by noon the next day were heading toward Hebron on a back route that took us away from Jerusalem, curving at Arad, down to Zoar at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, then up the King's Highway through Kir-hareseth, Dibon, Heshbon and finally back to Rabbah, where we were not long in finding a caravan to which to attach ourselves and, once again on camel back, taking the route toward Dumah and home.
In that way, we made certain Herod could not find our little band, losing ourselves among the travelers who packed the King’s Highway and with the safe, vast barrier of the Dead Sea between us.
Since we've returned, I've commissioned a Jewish scribe to make a copy for me of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (with a thank you copy for the head of the local synagogue). I've been reading these sacred books as he translates them and now I understand so much more.
Zarathushtra had a little part of the truth - now I've learned the rest!
The advent of this world savior is both a time changing as well as a life changing event. It has certainly changed our lives. Hopefully, he will be received by others with the joy that filled Melchior, Caspar, and me and not with the fear that was Herod's.
The child's star may be gone from the sky, but its light now radiates in my heart. May the coming of this heavenly Ruler fill every honest seeker with the repentance and the blessing that we three magi know and may his coming light every life with God's everlasting love.
So I Have Written. Farewell.
Balthasar the Magi, Advisor-in-Training to the King.
A Note from the author Bill:
This story was originally presented as a narrative monologue sermon at Pilgrim Church of Beverly, Massachusetts, an urban storefront church I helped plant and which I helped pastor for thirty years. The story of the visitors from the East is a wondrous part of the whole Christmas story. It reveals the scope of the Lord Jesus’s appeal from rich to poor, east to west, nation to nation across the sweep of our present world. Truly, when the Son of Humanity was lifted up, he netted in all people to himself, as he promised (John 12:32).
Readers who might, themselves, want to enact it, might find a little data about my experience with each of them helpful. The tale took forty minutes to deliver, about twice as long as an ordinary sermon, since it was a special presentation. I increased the font size of the manuscript to 18, double-spaced, which helped keep eye-contact with the congregation without losing my place in the manuscript. Since this was a special, festive Christmas service, I dressed in a robe and with a faux jeweled cap that I’d picked up in Istanbul, Turkey and spoke behind a little table filled with rolled up paper to look like a pile of scrolls to make it appear that I was being visited by the congregation in my observatory by the palace.
The Bible was my chief resource, and I translated every passage myself in order to catch the nuances. I have also been blessed to have visited many of these biblical cities and sites on location in our various trips to Israel and Greece and this helps with describing terrain. Other sources were: Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry’s The NIV Harmony of the Gospels; Eusebius’ History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews, Emil Schürer’s The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ; Edwin Yamauchi’s “Did Persian Zoroastrianism Influence Judaism?” Artifax (Winter, 2013); The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible; Collier’s Encyclopedia; articles in the Bulletin of Biblical Research; commentaries in the International Critical Commentary series; R. K. Harrison’s Major Cities of the Biblical World; Oxford Classical Dictionary; Hammond’s Atlas of the Holy Land; Hans Dieter Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri and the Demotic Prayers; Henri Daniel-Rops’s Daily Life in the Time of Jesus; Joachim Jeremias’s Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. The sermon is copywritten William David Spencer c. 2003.