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.
Saturday, November 9, 2019
Rarely do we meet a courageous Christian hero in secular movies today. Christians instead are often portrayed in a negative light. Harriet is a refreshing contrast. Featuring Verve Records’ s talented artist, Cynthia Erivo, this excellent, skillfully written, adroitly directed, powerfully acted, and beautifully produced Focus Features movie begins as a dramatization of her life as a slave but then focuses on her run for freedom a hundred miles into Pennsylvania from the slave state of Maryland. But then she is not satisfied to live simply as a free woman, but she is led by the Lord to free hundreds of other slaves including her own relatives. She is portrayed as a devout Christian who is guided by the Lord through the woods and farmlands by visions of what could happen. Her followers must wait while she listens as a prophet to the direct leading of her Lord. One marvelous scene is where a reward-seeking free Black man (Walter, winsomely played by Henry Hunter Hall) witnesses her trance and, thereby, is transformed. He sees that God speaks directly to her and asks, could she introduce him to the Lord? The anti-slavery society in Philadelphia of Blacks and Whites appears almost idyllic until Harriet challenges them, when faced with the devastating threat of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that while cautious they must not become passive and comfortable in their luxury homes but must never forget to seek actively to liberate more slaves. Harriet’s sense of community superseded her own comfort. Nevertheless, despite the danger, she lived into her 90s and did not lose one person that she conducted North.
The slave owners are not presented in a positive light, especially as they compare slaves to pigs. As Gideon Brodess, her slave owner was taught, one might become attached to a slave (or “pig”), but, when it comes time to remove the piglets and kill the pig, then understandably one will change one’s attitude.
We may think the 1800s have left us behind but 200 years later some White Americans still treat some Black Americans as second-class citizens. Thus, this is a timely movie.
Harriet Tubman is portrayed as someone who is not double-minded. What God wants her to do, she does. She acts and does not question God’s leading, no matter how difficult it would appear. When God speaks, she acts without question. They call her “Moses,” because like Moses she met with God and led her people out of slavery. The Lord told her, as he told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Exod 3:7-8 NRSV). Moses brought them out as a nation. Harriet brought them out one by one and group by group.
Harriet is a worthwhile movie to see and support especially in times when we still have racial incidents.
 At the end the film notes that Harriet Tubman personally escorted out 75 slaves but as a scout with the union army’s Black Regiment, together they freed 750. Collier’s Encyclopedia 22 (1987) writes that over ten years she personally escorted more than 200 runaway slaves to the North. She “never lost any of her charges” (505).
 One escaping slave reported, “I’s hoping and praying all the time I meets up with that Harriet Tubman woman. She the colored woman what takes slaves to Canada. She always travels the underground railroad, they calls it, travels at night and hides out in the day. She sure sneaks them out the South, and I thinks she’s the brave woman,” the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project, ed. B. A. Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 198
Saturday, October 12, 2019
Different places where we’ve lived have built their identities around different celebration days. Growing up in New Jersey, we knew July 4th was definitely parade day. That was pounded in our earliest memories by those booming high school band drums, resonating in the pit of our stomachs as we hung enthralled on our mother’s hand. Nearby New York, of course, televised the extravaganza down Wall Street known as “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” In Louisville, Kentucky the big day was Pegasus Day, to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. These days we have to vacate our store-front church on the main street in Beverly, Massachusetts by noon if we want to avoid the traffic snarl that is the colorful Santa Claus Parade, when local merchants can bean you from on top of floats if your eyes aren’t peeled for incoming candy, peppering the sidelines like hail. But nothing beats the circus that is Salem on Halloween. Trading on its reputation, Salem draws thousands of sightseers to its “Haunted Happenings” events, replete with “Horribles” parades when kids dress up like the undead and all the doo-dad shops have their curio occult action figures, witch tee shirts, and other Samhain-knock-off junk on sale at special prices. It’s sometimes hard for Christians to remind ourselves that October 31st is actually Reformation Day and handing out candy to little kids in Disney match-product outfits is really celebrating one of God’s great days and not just warding off spooks with bribes.
Associating Halloween with horror is especially true for those of us who teach in the cities around Massachusetts Bay, because October is the month when the first round of student papers come in. Don’t get us wrong. We love our students and teaching is delightful – we’ve been doing it long enough now (in both our cases on and off since the late 1960s), but we can both verify that no teacher on any level we ever met likes grading. The horror of piles of student papers can easily quell the ardor of any who venture into this noble profession without a true calling. You pour your little heart out sharing the treasures of knowledge, laying out your assignments with the care and caution that an explorer would when explaining the traps and dangers of a misstep on a map to King Solomon’s mines and what happens? Boom! How many students stumble right before your disbelieving eyes into some embarrassing boffo, yawning like a pit of inattentive doom beneath their unwary feet. Of course, many of these are avoidable, if they just paused and proofed their work. Over the years Bill has noted a few of these bloopers as a caution to other intrepid students on the road to theological knowledge, and here are a smattering like Juju trinkets in an old Tarzan movie, warning all to check our work carefully, we who would enter here.
So, here’s a starter received a few years ago in Bill’s Systematic Theology #1 class on a term paper practically applying the loving kindness of God to human interaction: “If I teach this in Sunday school. I want to teach through four weeks of Bible Study. Through this Bible Study, I want my church members to learn and practice lack of forgiveness and mercy.” Bill replied to this student, “It won’t take you 4 weeks to teach your people to be unforgiving and merciless. Those ‘talents’ are natural.”
But, there’s plenty more misguided piety where that came from like: “Christians disobey the word of God faithfully.” (And do they also sin devoutly?).
On historical notes:
“Antemomian tendencies.” (Bill had to point out, only Adam was ante mom, being the only human who didn’t have one.)
“Because of sin God cast both of them out of his presents.” (No Christmas stocking stuffers for them!)
“Adam the man plugged the world into sin and only a sinless man could redeem us saving us from the sting of death and restoring us by robbing us in his righteousness.” (Can’t trust anybody these days?)
“[God] also entrusted Adam to bare a nation of people, who would conquer sin through obedience.” (This must be commentary from Nudist Colony Bible: e.g., “As people were fruitful and multiplied, the production of fig leaves could not meet the market demand.)
“Moses could only handle seeing a smart part of God’s glory without it killing him (Exodus 32:20-22).” (Bill had to ask: “Are you speculating there was a dumb part that would have finished him off?”)
“God set aside cities of refuse.” (Where Israel could recycle all its garbage?)
“The awful/terrible storm arose; it was so strong that boat has began to shrink, and the Professional Fishermen were very concerned/alarmed with a sense of desperation.” (By this time, they must have all been standing on one foot in the center of the boat, wondering how small this thing was going to get!)
“[Jesus] slept in a moving sheep (Mark 8:24) and he was tired when he walked for along time (John 4:6).” (The jostling by that peripatetic sheep must have kept waking him up.)
“The Council of Chalcedon declares that scared things and humanity are in the same personality.” (Yes, reading this paper, your professor has been feeling a bit of free-floating anxiety himself these days…)
“[God] made it so that the church will exist in the church.” (Makes sense, otherwise the church would be nowhere…)
“During an interview conducted by a group of Christians at Boston common regarding Jesus divinity, many being interviewed believed that Jesus was a massager sent down from God.” (Sort of like a personal trainer?)
“The characteristics of the youth at risk within the city: the following is the list of a couple of traits. *Teens in their middle to late teens. *Most are males (the females too).” (So that’s why the girls are so tough!)
“We are it children, and we are the chosen of living Father.” (If all of us are “it,” how do we play?)
“God is the hop for the future.” (The future just being a hop, skip, and a jump away.)
The following students may have skipped lunch to work on their papers:
“The death has wined all human being from the first man Adam” (and dined us, too.)
“[This paper] will compare and contrast Christianity as a belief system of grace and Islam as a religion of woks.” (Can one fit surahs in fortune cookies?)
“The Baha’ism believe that salivation is something that could be done by the cooperative contributions of both human and God.” (Sort of like a divine/human gourmet cookoff?)
“Jesus is the perfect gift of God to human beings for salivation.” (“Taste and see that the Lord is good?”)
“More over we can’t find faith in infants because they are not conscious of the salivation process.” (But they eat heartily just the same.)
“We need to sustain our salivation every day until we reach our destination.” (The Great Food Chute in the Sky?)
“[Satan] knew Jesus was angry after forty days of fasting. (Where’s the beef!!!)
“Christ was made fresh and was God.” (Sounds like the next day there was a day-old Christ sale…)
He paid the rice for us to rise from the grave.” (That would have put salvation on the barter system.)
“How should we respond individually and corporately to clams of divine healing?” (Serve them on the half shell?)
“All Christians and churches have to confess before God that we are ‘greed’ like a fig.” (But, thank God, not as bad as a pomegranate?)
“The Westminster Lager Catechism” (only recited in beer halls).
“In short, the beginning of MAÑANA, Dr. González gleans on a vast amount of material, which relishes on the hundreds of encounters and discussions with Hispanics from all walks of life.” (Hot dogs, anyone?)
“The Israelites were delivered out of slavery and God allowed them to experience His omnipotence by making them wonder the dessert for 40 years.” (And not only wondering about dessert, but often unsure where the next main course was coming from…)
On practical matters:
“The treasure time of prayer is ‘Saebuk Gido’ which stands for early morning or darn prayer.” (as opposed to late night or goshhangit prayer?)
“To Israelites, while Gentiles are enemies to kill, and they are the object of hospitality.” (We can do this hospitality thing the easy way or the hard way…)
“Preaching sermons on omnipotence of God and how the bible say He will never forsaken us for a series of three months.” (After that, we’re on our own?)
“They urge everyone to seek the Lord together individually.” (whichever works.)
“The periscope fits in the overall of the letter.” (So, the rest of the submarine must be in the subtext?)
“Jesus was born into a family in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth just like any of us.” (I myself grew up on the Street of the Spitting Camel, right next to the Falafel shop.)
On theological matters:
“Is it wrong for a woman to receive sperm from a woman who is not her husband?” (Is it even possible?)
“Jesus was the substation for our sins.” (His heavenly Father was the main line?)
“The Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things along with the lost of the other good angels who follow are made like him).” (If they ever locate these missing angels, maybe cable TV can star them in a sequel: “Lost 2: The Celestial Island.”)
“And also Luke 4:41 says that all creation know that he is Don of God and Christ.” (Who’s Don? And what happened to George Burns and Bruce Almighty?)
“And without the death of Christ dying on the cross I would be free today of my sins.” (But he died, so I’m not?)
“Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave that me might be saved.” (“Me saved, Tarzan – you, too?)
“The birth actually happened and Jesus dwelt among mankind and took on human nature with sinning.” (C’mon! There were so many fish in the Sea of Galilee, Jesus never cheated on his income tax!)
“Sanctification is the process in which nouns are made holy so that they may be pure and blameless in God’s sight.” (Is there no hope for verbs?)
“God is just means that He administers his decree fairy without showing favoritism or partiality.” (Sort of like the tooth fairy but with more muscle.)
“There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither bond or free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all on in Christ Jesus.” (So, get on wid’cha good self!)
“In Revelation 20 there is the discussion of the thousand year rain.) (When that happens, plug in the sump pumps!)
“The Bible is the Word of God and it has no error. Everything written on it is correct and true.” (From the Gospel of Thomas to Rudy Bultmann to the boys in the back of the Jesus Seminar, it’s all good???)
“Professor William Spencer Trust says in his systematic Theology 2 lecture notes, ‘Trust the Bible and do not fear scientific inquiry.” (A Trust we can trust.)
“Also there are numerous biblical support in the Newt Testament.” (A salamander’s-eye view of religion.)
“Bultmann’s prose is dense and often elusive. However, this little boob outlines his related approaches to Biblical interpretation and theology.” (That’s why we’ve assigned the twerps and twits to tackle his philosophy and applications.)
“John Calvin uses the same passage to emphasize the Divinity and Eternity of the World in his INSTITUTES.” (Wait a minute! Calvin didn’t read James Lovelock with his Gaia hypothesis and Carl Sagan with his eternal universe. They wouldn’t be born for 5 more centuries!)
“As Arminius, I believe that to be able to reach the salvation we have to persevere until the end.” (As Calvin, however, I would disagree.)
On other religions:
“The Queen of Sheba was taken b[y] Solomon love for his people and GOD. She was told that GOD was a loving GOD, and from what was at hand it was true. Sheba came to seek and find out about his GOD and his land. What she found out was so great that she became a Buddhist.” (Later on, did she join Mr. Moon?)
“They consider it quite in order to break their marriage wows when the romance ‘rubs off.’” (Like that old traditional blues song that we’ve just written laments: “The wow is gone/ It’s gone away/The wow is gone/It’s gone away/I got one choice/To cry or pray.”)
“While Jehovah’s Witnesses are generally sincere, dedicated people, they still need a theological grid that is able to sustain a faith sufficient to appease God’s righteous demand for sin.” (Which god was that?)
“It is Chris himself who builds the church by calling his people to himself as he promised.” (Fine, Chris. You call your people. I’ll call mine, and we’ll do lunch and maybe plan to build a manse next.)
Here’s one Aίda received in her course on interpreting the book of James: “Religious observance without ethical practice is a matter of deceiving oneself in one’s own heart – it is an exercise in fertility.” (“Is that what God meant by “Be fruitful and multiply!”)
And, finally, from a student self-evaluation sheet, answering the question: “Did any external circumstances such as illnesses, etc. limit your class work.” The answer was, “no just age and memor--”
We think that last one speaks for all us erring humans in its authentic pathos. As for the rest, who needs Halloween? These bloopers are scary enough!
Paul told Timothy in the letter that we’ve come to call 2 Timothy that his young protégé should literally, “Make every effort to be conscientious (that is, be zealous or eager, taking great pains) to render yourself approved as if by test (with the connotation of being tried and true, or genuine) to God, a worker unashamed, using (or interpreting) correctly the word of truth.”
This advice, of course, applies to the future pastors we’re training, but doesn’t it also apply to ourselves? It certainly applies to the author of this blog entry! Because the very next sentence Bill wrote was: “Aίda and Bill both let our students redo their pastors…” Oops! Papers! (Hopefully that wasn’t a Freudian slip. Our pastors work hard trying to please the Lord and edify the people and don’t need us working them over.) As for Bill’s blooper, we didn’t catch it until the second reading by Aίda, whose sharp eye ferreted it out. This just proves that nobody’s exempt – including the profs – once again underscoring Bill’s adaption of the old adage: “To err is human, to not notice it is embarrassing.” What Bill meant to write, of course, was: “Aίda and Bill both let our students redo their papers.” Why do we do that? Because a mistake unnoticed like Bill made writing this blog highlights our need for mercy and empathy, two activities all of us, no matter our callings, should cultivate in all our daily interactions. Let’s face it: boffos are the human plight, no matter what our occupation. In our case, we are called to train ministers. We realize that how we treat our students in class sets a pattern for how they will treat those to whom they will minister. So, throughout all of our courses, we provide the opportunities for students to correct any errors without penalty, redoing the papers to master the course and raise the grade right up to the last day of class.
In our work, as teachers, we have to remind ourselves that instant correction is not always available if we should teach errors or, in life, if any of us through a thoughtless word or action hurt one another. Irreparable damage can be done that’s hard to correct if we discover our error after students graduate and disperse. This is why teachers are promised to be judged more strictly (James 3:1). We really do need to get what we teach right to do no harm and that’s why we want to make sure our students learn and pass on what’s right. That’s what the term “orthodoxy” means – “right doctrine.” Orthopraxy means “right practice (or action).” Being fallen humans, we try our best, but it’s also why we need God’s mercy daily.
In general, however, all Christians these days have to be careful to be conscientious in everything we do and in everything we say to others if we want to please God and represent the truths of the Bible by which we want to live before a watching world. That’s why empathy and kindness and spreading God’s love are the real messages we should be drawing from Reformation Day and All Hallow’s Eve and sharing generously like Christmas “wassailing” gifts with everyone else.
 Fueled in our childhood by Valentine Davies’s 1947 book Miracle on 34th Street and George Seaton’s 3 Oscar-winning movie of the same year.
 Those who want to see our mature thoughts on how to teach, please consult our brand new book Empowering English Language Learners: Successful Strategies of Christian Educators (from Wipf and Stock’s House of Prisca and Aquila Series), that Bill edited with Cal Teach-educated scholar and ESL teacher Jeanne DeFazio, which includes a superb set of seasoned teachers with experience teaching from migrant camps and pre-school right on up the educational ladder to grammar school to high school to college to seminary graduate school.
 2 Timothy 2:15. Bill’s amplified literal translation.
 We have to cut off there, otherwise, when the Lord comes back for us, as we rise to meet Jesus in the sky, and thrilling to enter our eternal rest, suddenly in our face the beatific vision blots out by an energetic fluttering as a student in front of us, waves one last revision while swimming across the air to us like a sky diver in reverse!
 The old British version of Treat, but no Trick, in the Christmas season.
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