EPIPHANY MOMENT

Before I and everyone else packs up our creches for another year, some thoughts on the Magi — and that Star.

It’s nearly little Christmas.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the the Star, and the Magi who followed it. How many were there? It’s not known, but legend has it they bore three gifts and they may represent, among other things, the three stages of life, or the three branches of the human race, semitic, white, black (which, of course, omits the Asian and therefore is beyond imperfect). The Magi were a once-powerful priestly caste of the Medes and the Persians, as recorded by Herodotus and others. They studied astrology and the divination of dreams.

How did they know about the blessed event? How far did they have to travel to Bethlehem?

They could have met with a very harsh fate had the brutal and crazed dictator Herod known they had ignored his request to report back to him the birthplace of savior. They could not have known, initially, of his terrifying and murderous reputation.

They were also said to be descendants of the great soothsayer Balaam. Nothing indicates that they enjoyed any great power at the time of the birth of Christ.

What about the star?

Identifying the star — that Star — is a thorny issue. How could these men, working with only the naked eye or the most rudimentary scientific instruments, have made astronomical observations of any precision? This is pretty much, word for word, the observation of that renowned and now mostly forgotten late French Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops, writing in his marvelous book, Jesus and His Time.

It could have been a “nova” similar to the new star that appeared in the Consetllation Aquila in 1918 or that was noticed in 1572 after the massacre of St. Bartholeomew’s Day. But no writers on those times in question recorded such an appearance.

Halley’s Comet, when it appeared on January 10, 1910, was visible in Jerusalem, its light observed to pass rapidly from east to west, becoming difused in the east and reapparring in full visibility to the west, as indicated in the Gospel Story. But Halley’s Comet could only have passed over the sky of the countries in question during the year 12 B.C. and not the year 6 B.C., when it is most often speculated that Christ was born. Other comments recorded by Chinese astronomers in the years 4 and 3 B.C. tell us it would not have been visible in Western Asia. Also, a comet, being subject to their diurnal orbit like other stars, could not indicate a precise location, much less a particlar house in a particular town.

Kepler thought that this celestial pheonmenon might be a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn as occurred again recently. His calculations suggest this could have occurred in the year 6 B.C., even though this date was not yet considered the most probable date for the birth of Christ. Interesting.

And the word “star” as used in scripture does not mean the stars ordinarly visible, but indicates some astronomical phomenon.

On the borderland of science and legend, as Daniel-Rops puts it, is Russian poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s theory that the “star” of the Gospel was a rare celestial phenomenon, an equinocrtial passage of Aries through Pisces which would signify to the Babylonian Magi, haunted by the idea of a recurring deluge, the an announcment of the end of the world and a new age in the history of the human race.

St. John Chrystosom, though pre-scientific, knew that stars don’t do what the star of Bethlehem was said to do — that according to Catholic convert and scripture scholar Scott Hahn.

Stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living cratures, but a kind composed entirely of mind.”

Thus John Chrystosom concluded that this was an appearnace of a Christmas angel. Those celestial messengers are forever being caught up in the cosmic drama, from the creation of the world. Good and bad angels are, to the devout mind, what accounts daily for all that is communicated to us in our universe. They are everywhere in the Christmas story.

My patron saint, Gregory the Great, according to Scott Hahn, accepted the angelic interepretation. He also observed the great difference beween the way God dealt with the shepherds and how he dealt with the Magi. The shepherds, though uneducated members of the lowest rank, were still members of the chosen people. They’d been hearing all their lives the prophesies of liberation destined for the Jews. So it was, says Gregory, that God announced Christ to them with angels.

“But a sign, not a voice, guided the gentiles,” writes Scott Hahn. He quotes Gregory’s homily on the Ephiphany, asserting that the Magi ” they were not prepared to make full use of reason to know the Lord.”

In other words, as Scott Hahn notes, when it came to understand the meaning of Christmas, “the simplest of pious field hands were better equipped than the most erudite scholars.”

But those scholars, to their eternal credit, came in an ardent search for the truth. “That’s something the angels could see — and work with,” writes Hahn.

And, it should be noted, they ultimately got their share of important angelic knowledge: an angel apperared to them in one of their dreams in time to steer them clear of Herod who might (God help us!) have tortured them to extract the knowedge they now posessed of the Infant Jesus’s whereabouts.

Thank you, angels.

And so, like those truth-seeking foreign gentile travelers, we must let the angels work with us and guide us now and to the end of our own desert journeys.

.…This Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death…

T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi

Yet the poet has his lone Magi, reflecting long after that journey and the witnessing of that birth, proclaim that he and his fellow travelers were afterwards no longer at home or at peace in their native lands (w)ith an alien people clutching their gods.

I know how he feels.

And so I say a wistful goodbye for another anxious year to those fellow travelers.

God willing, I’ll see them — we’ll all see them — again next year, in peace and joy.

A TENNYSON CHRISTMAS

From “In Memoriam” in which, the poet, deep in mourning, over hundreds of stanzas, gropes for the light over three Christmases, as time slowly closes over the loss of a dear friend and faith slowly covers over his mourning. Christmas and a new year were the milepost at every painful turning. November is the month in which we especially remember the dead. December, and Christmas, are when we miss them the most.

FROM STANZA XXVIII

The time draws near the birth of Christ.

The moon is hid, the night is still;

The Christmas bells from hill to hill

Answer each other in the mist.

FROM STANZA LXXVIII

Again at Christmas did we weave

The holly round the Christmas hearth;

The silent snow possess’d the earth

And calmly fell our Christmas-eve.

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,

No wing of wind the region swept,

But over all things brooding slept

The quiet sense of something lost.

FROM STANZA CIV

The time draws near the birth of Christ;

The moon is hid, the night is still;

A single church below the hill

Is pealing, folded in he mists.

A single peal of bells below,

That awakens in this hour of rest

A single murmur in the breast

That these are not the bells I know.

Like stranger’s voices here they sound,

In lands where not a memory strays,

Nor landmark breaths of other days,

But all is new unhallow’d ground.

FROM STANZA CV

Tonight ungather’d let us leave

This laurel, let this holly stand:

We live within the stranger’s land,

And strangely falls our Christmas-eve.

FROM STANZA CVI

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying clouds, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

FROM STANZA CXXXI (CONCLUDING)

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

1850

Just fragments in which earth and mortals regenerate, mid-way in a century that was struggling to retain the “old” faith. Tennyson, nonetheless moves from despair to hope. Tennyson is not my poetic soul-mate in many particulars, out of sorts — along with the likes of Charles Kingsley — with the important Oxford Movement, in which Saint John Henry Newman was about to remove himself, and lead other churchmen, out of the slowly sinking barque of Anglicanism.

But he knew Christmas for what it was and must always be for us, however great the darkness.

2021

MELVILLE’S CHRISTMAS

It was not Dickens’s Christmas, that’s for sure. The chapter in Moby Dick entitled, rather ironically, “Merry Christmas” has no holly or warmth of the hearth nor warm memories. The Pequod has just set out from New Bedford and our narrator Ishmael writes….

At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.

Did Melville’s Calvinism come between him an even the slightest bit of yuletide sanquinity? Or is this merely the harsh reality of the whaling voyage — assorted pagans and long-suffering, dour Christians thrown together in ice and danger and commerce? Scrooge would have been at home here, though perhaps terrified and seasick.

Contrast this cold, grim seaboard Christmas moment with Christmas Eve at old Fezziwig’s where The Ghost of Christmas Past has borne Scrooge so he might see again how the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug and warm, and dry, and bright a ballroom as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

And the dancing commenced — while aboard the Pequod, crewman Bildad, hands at the windlass, roared forth some sort of a chorus about the girls in Booble Alley, that being an early 19th Century sailors’ haunt in a depraved neighborhood of Liverpool — or so I have read.

And while Dickens’s Scrooge, in roughly this same era, was found awakening, a man reborn, to the glories of a London Christmas morning, Melville’s Ishmael , on his “Merry Christmas”, tells us the cold, damp night breeze blew…a screaming gull flew overhead…we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.

Oh, well…as Dickens has Tiny Tim observe, God Bless Us, Every One!

DECEMBER STILLNESS

That is the name of a Siegried Sassoon poem — “December Stillness” — written the year my parents were married, 1934.

Puts me in mind of “Silent Night.” Silent night, holy night….

My parents have been gone for years.

Siegfried Sassoon was one of the World War I poets, along with Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. He was the only one of the three to survive the war, Brooke dying from war-related blood poisoning, Owen from the guns a week before the Armistice. Sassoon also knew and was among those “soldiers…of death’s grey land…in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats…in ruined trenches, lashed with rain….” Yet he could manage to write, barely two decades after the universal cataclysm of that World War, of “December stillness, crossed by twilight roads” and tell us that he asked that stillness ( yes, he talked to the stillness) to “(T)each me to travel far and bear my loads.”

Religion, or a higher power, were largely swept out of Sassoon’s personal universe by the experience of the trenches, so far as I know. Or, raised by a Jewish father and Anglo-Catholic mother, he saw what, to his mind, were the “limitations” of religious faith.

Not all who saw war ceased to see hope, and see it in an Infinite Being.

But….

December, with its “grave diminishings of green and brown”( Siegried’s words). It is upon us now. I love December, because Christmas comes at the end of its Advent season.

I looked out early one Massachusetts December at the green surviving amid the bare brown of earth and bramble and, perhaps, traces of early snow behind what was my house then, a pleasant place in a pleasant town, more pleasant by far than what I call home now. I’ve escaped to the sub-tropics, an economic migrant.

(Why have I moved so often in recent years? What is this restless search for the “geographic cure”?)

There have been so many houses, so many homes in what still seems such a short time — but, really, so much time has passed, actually. There have been whole wars fought since that “brown and green” moment in Carlisle, Massachusetts. There has been, these days before Christmas in 2021, an unspeakable natural horror — a massively powerful, long-lasting tornado — that stripped away lives and structures in the dead of a Kentucky night — and the Illinois and Tennesee nights. Miles and miles of America’s heartland lies bare and ruined, plunged into “death’s grey land” and silence and darkness days before Christmas.

But in 1934, the year my parents found joy in marriage, followed by years of struggle, that stillness, that December stillness, spoke to the surviving war poet who would live to see another World War consume civilization. He lived, in fact, until the first day of September, 1967.

It was, he wrote back in that same year of 1934, the “love of life, when I was young/ Which led me out in summer to explore/ The daybreak world.”

A “daybreak world” that would be darkened, so deeply darkened by the most brutal of wars, civil and worldwide, all during a most bloody century.

But now, as those summer days of 2021 lead into these dark December nights, a welcomed stillness deepens here and there. Sometimes we have to be in a sanctuary to be mindful of it. A church, or chapel or our own little room.

True, there was little stillness in the long, violent, politically fraught summer of 2021. I cannot forget or cease praying for an end of that unwelcomed stillness in Kentucky that stretches for miles around now, through three states,in which structures and memories have been ravaged by the great violence of nature.

Still, in our current stillness, wherever we can find it, Siegried Sassoon would tell us, “The Daybreak World” abides. It awaits us, here, or hereafter, if we choose to believe it.

We call it hope. Many call it God. The words, the prayers, do not always come easily. God’s stillness, or what seems like His silence, vexes many in their strenuous groping after hope and peace.

Faith is the flame. It can be put out. Symbolically , really.

Meanwhile, we must travel far and bear our loads.

Oh, my!!

At the end of this long, sober,(even embarrassing) very lugubrious rumination, I must laugh a little. Even laugh out loud.

Mere trite meanderings. Siegfried must be chuckling along with me somewhere. I choose to believe so.

Time to head to the mall….praying as I go. Ho! Ho! Ho!

OUR HOLLY, JOLLY SALVATION

The history of salvation is not a small event on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing that happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist, the encounter between God and his creature.

Pope Benedict XVI, address at the opening of the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 6,2008

We must keep this in mind as the back story to all that “holiday” noise — how, Christmas-in-Christmas-out we hear Burl Ives’s splendid voice, like that of a rotund, fondly-recollected uncle who always played Santa Claus at Christmas, pouring down on us from the CVS Musak system.

He, Christ, the God Man, the Alpha and Omega — is coming to be born again in very squalid circumstances on a cold desert night.

It is often tough to go on clinging to that believe in this dark, hostile, yes, noisy age — an age that began over two thousand years ago where we have had, as Matthew Arnold noted in “Dover Beach” neither joy nor love nor light nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain…on a darkling plain.

Or So Arnold saw it, perplexed and skeptical as he was in a rationalizing, skeptical century now one and a half centuries away from ours.

Sing on, dear, late-lamented Burl though we grow weary of your musical salutation and well-wishing, because, Hark, the Angels are also Singing….

ADVENT IS UPON US

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of year for a journey:

The way steep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

T.S. Eliot

Journey of the Magi

Our journey begins again today, this 28th day of November, 2021.

Everybody knows, even those of us who have lived most unadventurously what it is to plod on for miles, it seems, eagerly straining your eyes towards the lights that, somehow, mean home. How difficult it is, when you are doing that to judge distances! In pitch darkness, it might be a couple of miles to your destination, it might be a few hundred yards. So it was, I think with the Hebrew prophets, as they looked forward to the redemption of their people. They could not have told you, within a hundred years, within five hundred years, when it was the deliverance would come.

Msgr. Ronald Knox

Sermon on Advent