Friday 5 January 2018

Written in Water #23: Following Yonder Star

January 6th is the Feast of Epiphany, the official end of Christmas. It's when, traditionally, the tale of the Magi is told in churches. It bears telling again, for it is one of the strangest stories in a book full of stories whose strangeness we take for granted.

Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again:
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

The Magi came from the east, so the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2:1-17) tells us, and we imagine three kindly men in silken robes, woven with stars in cloth of gold and silver thread. A star leads them. They visit Herod and ask for the king, and he, terrified, begs that they tell him where this newborn king is, that he might pay his respects. They do not come back, and in a fury Herod orders the deaths of the infants of Bethlehem, all of them, and the only survivor is the boy Jesus, because Joseph, like the Magi, is warned in a dream and the family escape the carnage, become refugees in Egypt.

Traditionally, we consider this a happy ending.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense brings a deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, voices raising
Worship to God most high.

We imagine them as Wise Men, and sometimes Kings, and both of those have some truth in them, but they're not all the truth.

The Greek author Herodotus is styled Father of History and Lies – he gives the first great account of the struggle of Greece with Persians and itself, but tells us also of dog-faced men and giant ants and the phoenix. He writes at length about the Magi, and you have to be cautious about the story as a piece of history, as you always do with Herodotus, but still, it has something to tell us.

The Magi, he says, are the religiously charged ruling class of Persia. He attributes savage rites to them, declares that they must shed blood with their own hands for their rituals to be valid. They fight among themselves, contrive assassinations, brew conspiracies, usurp thrones. And they watch the stars.

I have this picture in my head, when I read Herodotus, of hard-faced men. They're the worst sort of killers, the ones who give the orders, who have the excuse of neither passion nor duty to assuage their consciences.

But Herodotus was writing five hundred years before Matthew. Times change.

In 53 BCE, Crassus, defeated by the Parthians (the rulers of Persia at the time), met a terrible end.  Plutarch, writing within a few decades either side of the evangelist, tells how the Parthians murdered the Roman general under a flag of truce. They beheaded him, and used his head as a prop for the head of Pentheus in a production of Euripides' play The Bacchae, for the entertainment of the king. A century later, Dio Cassius would say that the Parthians murdered Crassus by pouring molten gold down his throat, which is perhaps less convoluted but no less unusual.

Lactantius, that most spiteful of Christian writers, lived a century after Dio. He tells of how in 260CE the persecuting emperor Valerian was captured by the Sassinid king Sapor after a failed Persian campaign. Valerian is humiliated; he lives the rest of his days forced to kneel and serve as a step when Sapor wishes to mount his horse, when he wants to board or alight from his carriage. And when Valerian dies, the Persians skin him, tan and dye the hide, and use it as a wall hanging in the temple of their gods, producing it to show to the ambassadors of Rome, so that they will understand that Persia is not to be taken lightly.

And all of this matters because the Gospel narrative of the Magi situates itself right in the middle of writings about Persian atrocities spanning nearly eight centuries.

The Magi are from the Great Empire of the East, and so of course when they arrive they seek an audience with Herod the Tetrarch. If you have the status they have, you don't snub the nearest thing you have to an equal – that would be bad diplomacy. Herod is only in situ thanks to the kindness of the Romans, and of course he will grant an audience, and when they talk of new Kings, of course he is frightened, of course he will resort to violence. What will the Romans say when they find he has spoken to Persian royalty? What will his family do, since there is no shortage of relatives to take his throne? Of course he panics: the Magi were from Persia, and in the West, people would think of the Persians and think of pain, and blood and death, of the strangest and cruellest sort.

Herod is stupid, venal, incompetent and unimaginative, of course. I say, of course, but you'd be surprised how many people default to thinking that those born to power and wealth are automatically cleverer, more competent, more virtuous and more visionary than the rest of us. In fact, if there's anything that a clear-eyed reading of history can teach us, it's that the opposite is the case. The wealthy and powerful don't need any of those other things, for they are wealthy and powerful, and wealth and power are all they need. This should be obvious to us, especially in the English-speaking North, especially now.

Myrrth is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom:
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

It's hard to tell whether any of these stories, including the Gospel, carries even the smallest quantum of historical fact, and this is the precise reason why I can see value in comparing accounts of Persian atrocities from such a wide span of time.

You see, the one indisputable historical fact that each of these stories conveys is that the people of the ancient Greco-Roman world were afraid of the Persians. They made monsters of them. They were the terrifying other, the cold warriors, the unknowable. It doesn't matter that Herodotus was writing centuries before Christ, because his tales were the tales people still told, about brutal rulers who followed stars, who were read and passed around even in the time of the gospels.

The stars they followed were the stars of horoscopes and charts, the stars that furnish astrologers with their predictions, transformed, I think, into a literal moving star by a swiftly adopted tradition.

It serves a "conservative" interpretation of the Bible (but how is it conservative to enslave the book to modernity? It's just another example of a word stolen) to domesticate the Wise Men, to make them sweet old divines on lone camels (never mind the troop of soldiers that would have accompanied them; never mind the retinue of slaves). To have these figures be the ones who recognise the child's identity with symbolic gifts – gold for power and wealth, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for one doomed to die a death of mystical significance – to have them be foreigners and pagans is bad enough. To have them be powerful agents of chaos, bringers of disaster, plotters of murders, that's harder still to bear.

But we need to bear it.

It needs to be owned. Now, more than ever.

Glorious now behold Him arise, 
King and God and Sacrifice!  
Heaven sings Alleluia, 
Alleluia the earth replies. 

From "Magi" we receive the word magic. And magic is what they do. The charts, the belief that things happen in appointed times and places, the use of potent symbols, all are the province of ritual magic.

Their visit to Christ was a magical working; to hand these things to an uncomprehending child (but how uncomprehending?) is the sealing of a fate, an act of prophecy.

It is not convenient for an evangelical narrative (and I repeat, now more than ever) for a figure like this to kneel before a homeless child.

Narratives of faith have always been in thrall to wealth and power, and for wealth and power to kneel – to kneel in worship – before poverty and disenfranchisement and pay respects is anathema not only to the narrative of high magic, but to the most ascendant Christian narrative we have, and sure, it's easy to deny the American Religious Right as heretical, but when that's the narrative with the power, who's the heretic? Maybe it's time to abandon the name "Christian" as a thing defamed and debased. Maybe it's time for the faithful remnant to take a different name for themselves.
(The Antichrist) will come by the power of Satan. He will have great power, and he will do many different false miracles, signs, and wonders. He will use every kind of evil to trick those who are lost. They will die, because they refused to love the truth. (If they loved the truth, they would be saved.) For this reason God sends them something powerful that leads them away from the truth so they will believe a lie.
2 Thessalonians 2:9-11
When an entire sector of Christendom – the most powerful, possibly the wealthiest – turns in lockstep to follow someone who cleaves closely to that description, it's time for self-examination.

I don't believe that apocalyptic prophecies are future timelines of days yet to come. Prophecy is a thing that warns about where we are, now. Early Christians believed the apocalypse was imminent, and in a sense they were correct, because the apocalypse is a current thing, and has always been current for us. We always, potentially, have another antichrist waiting in the wings.

It is the red-eyed howl of the now.

The lesson of the Magi, and that's a lesson for everyone, including people who don't believe, especially the people who don't believe, because thats where the hope is, is that perhaps we should look to the foreigners, to the ones we distrust, about whom we spread tales of atrocities, for it is they who see what the believer cannot. We must accept them as a warning to us.

The Magi of the story were always meant to be the lords of chaos and death. But even the lords of chaos and death can kneel in submission before poverty, weakness, innocence. If that's not a meaning for Christmas I can get behind, I don't know what is.

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