Tag Archives: Yemen

The Epiphany

We’re into the New Year and automatically we wonder about the future. We can’t avoid it. We’re wondering what this year is going to bring. What’s coming?

Living in a secular age as we do, we see things mainly with eyes for the here and now, which often boils down to politics and economics. What’s the country going to be like under President Trump? What’s the economy going to be like? Unfortunately when we look at things only like that, we can end up being small minded. We can think that what we see and hear and touch now is all there is. We lose a larger vision of life.

We need the spark, the light, of revelation.

Can we see that light in the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? It begins with a star, guiding some travelers on their way. Can this mystery lift up our secular minds and point out something more? Is our world being guided by a Star?

To start, let’s not see the story of the Magi as a cute story of some people riding on camels coming to see Jesus. More than that, it’s a revelation of God’ divine plan which carries news for us and our world, and it’s as important now as it was then.

The Magi story is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, who was writing for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the Syria about the end of the first century. The temple of Jerusalem was recently destroyed and Jewish Christians like other Jews were facing an unknown, disturbing future. When Jesus came to them, he began his mission saying to the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for a cure for her daughter, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus first told the twelve whom he sent out to preach. (Mt 10, 5) It looked as though the promises of God were for the Jews and them alone.

But that made the promises of God too small.

Matthew’s story of the Magi was a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides. Jesus came for all, though his ministry was first to the Jews. God wants the world to be one family and he wishes his gifts and graces be given to many peoples and places. God doesn’t save a few.

The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today. We tend to see ourselves a privileged people and our own country a promised land. God is on our side. Better to leave the rest of the world to its wars, its earthquakes, its immigrants, its divisions, its problems. As the old song once said, let’s find “perfect peace, where joys never cease, and let the rest of the world go by.”

We can’t let the rest of the world go by. The story of the Magi reminds us we live in a big world that God means to be one. The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about people on camels who looked and dressed and spoke differently than us. They’re symbols of the world beyond ours that’s called by God to share in his promises.

And the newcomers come with gifts.

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents. “They’re just myths,” you hear it said. I don’t like those stories dismissed that way, because it easily leads to a further dismissal: ”Is any of it true? Probably not.”

We think straight reporting is the only thing true. “Just the facts, Mam.” Everything else is fake news. But are these stories fake?

“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark” a recent Nova program on PBS examining the biblical story makes good sense to me. In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. So you had to keep boats handy– you never know.

You had to be ready for a great flood too, but people have short memories and people then, as now, tend to forget “the big ones.” “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests– meteorologists and story tellers of their time– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story to keep the people of their day on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in good shape and make sure there’s also a big boat around for ‘the big one.’”

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Exile of Jews  to Babylon

In 587 BC, thousands of Jews were driven from Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylonian armies, and were forced to make the thousand mile journey in Babylon. It was their Exile. When they heard the story of the great flood they saw it as a symbol of their own tragic circumstances. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm137)

Returning from exile, the Jews incorporated their version of the flood story into the Torah. It became a reminder to keep the covenant God made with them and beware of living unfaithfully as “in the days of Noah.”

Does real history underlie the story of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents? Begin with Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine then, whom secular sources and many archeological monuments from the time describe quite well. Herod was a micro-manager who built fortified palaces in Jerusalem, the Herodium outside Bethlehem and other places to keep watch over his kingdom.

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Citadel, Herod’s Palace Fortress, Jerusalem

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Herodium, Mountain Fortress of Herod the Great

He promoted trade with the outside world; he built the seaport of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea and cultivated the trade routes from Yemen and other eastern parts that led all the way to Rome. He would have kept tabs on those arriving with spices and luxury goods of all kinds. He knew who came and went.

Were the Magi wealthy eastern traders, quite knowledgeable about the religious world of the people with whom they traded? Did they hear of the Child in Bethlehem? Herod’s advisors and everyone else knew Bethlehem was associated with the legendary King David and there were prophecies about an heir to his throne coming from there. Did the foreigners visit the Child, bring their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the prizes of their trade, and then quickly leave, well aware of Herod’s paranoia, quick temper and brutality.

Given Herod’s jealous hold on power, the story of the slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem unlikely, True, it’s not mentioned in any secular source, but neither are many other tragic stories of the time. Bethlehem, after all, was a small town, off the beaten track. The death of perhaps 20 or so infants might go unnoticed and be quickly forgotten.

Matthew’s story is hardly a myth. Rather, it sees things through God’s eyes. The star points to the real power guiding human history; the magi represent the rest of the world coming to adore the Child. Angelic powers are always at our side. The slaughtered infants are like so many tragic deaths that seem to question God’s promise of life, but God doesn’t forget, the story says, even if human history doesn’t remember. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.”

If you ever visit Bethlehem, go to see the Herodium, Herod’s massive fortified palace looking down on the nearby town. Joseph wouldn’t need much urging to take the Child and his mother from this place,would he? Go to the Citadel in Jerusalem built on the highest spot in the city. You can walk where Herod once walked and imagine him looking down on his kingdom. But it was not his kingdom, after all, it was God’s. Go to Caesaria Martima, the splendid port city created by Herod. Did the Magi’s caravans reach here?

Then ask yourself if the stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy are myths.

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Caesaria Maritima