Bob Schwartz

Tag: Christmas

The New Possibility

Kazuaki Tanahashi, Miracles of Each Moment

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible.
Wallace Stevens

The meaning of Christmas depends on who you are. From devout Christians to casual ones, from non-Christians to non-believers in anything but overall goodness, it is still an imposing and inescapable enough day to merit thought and maybe spiritual solace and strength, if that is something you seek.

The lines above are from the great American poet Wallace Stevens. I have for years quoted them out of their context, which is the multi-part epic called Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.

Entire theses have been written about that masterwork, and I claim no depth to fully comprehend the poem, the poet, or the learned experts about its meaning. One thing I get is that among the Supreme Fictions he notes are the arts of creation and religion.

Those lines are taken from a section entitled It Must Give Pleasure:

It Must Give Pleasure

VII

He imposes orders as he thinks of them,
As the fox and snake do. It is a brave affair.

But to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,

To discover winter and know it well, to find
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,

Seeming at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,

The fiction of an absolute — Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.

So on Christmas morning, all that I believe, all that I have studied, all that I have embraced and discarded, tried and tried again, comes down to this. To the new possibility embodied in each birth, of the seeming lowliest to the seeming loftiest, which are themselves labels of convenience and fictional distinction:

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible.

Christmas: The Prequel (Infancy Gospel of James)

Gaudenzio Ferrari, The Annunciation to Joachim and Anna, 1544-45

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out.
Bart Ehrman

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Joan Didion

Whether you are one who takes the events in the canonical gospels as history or story, there are certainly missing pieces in the narratives. Over the centuries, these gaps have been filled in by inspiring and imaginative “other gospels.”

The Infancy Gospel of James is a dramatic prequel to the Christmas story. It can be found in The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše.

Bart Ehrman writes:

Of all the early Christian apocrypha, none played a larger a role in the theology, culture, and popular imagination of late antiquity and the Middle Ages than the Proto-Gospel of James. This is the Gospel “prior to” the Gospel, an account of the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus.

The focus of attention is on Jesus’ mother Mary, on her own miraculous birth, upbringing, young life, and engagement to Joseph. In addition, the account narrates, as a kind of Christian expansion and interpretation of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Mary’s continued virginity (demonstrated famously by a midwife’s postpartum inspection), and the opposition to the Christ child by King Herod, leading to the miraculous protection of John the Baptist and his mother, and the murder of his father, Zacharias, the high priest of the Jews, in the temple.

The account was probably written in the late second century and became particularly popular in the eastern part of Christendom….

For the most part the Proto-Gospel was not transmitted in the West because its portrayal of Jesus’ “brothers” as sons of Joseph from a previous marriage was roundly condemned by no less an authority than Jerome. In Jerome’s forcefully stated view, Jesus’ alleged brothers were in fact his cousins. This interpretation was closely tied to Jerome’s ascetic agenda: for him, not only was Mary a perpetual virgin, but Joseph—the earthly father of the Lord—was as well. The account of the Proto-Gospel was explicitly condemned in 405 CE by Pope Innocent I….

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out. If he was special, as shown by the fact that he was conceived by a virgin—what can we say about his mother? Who was Mary? What made her special? How was she herself born? How did she maintain her own purity, to make her a worthy “vessel” for the Son of God?…

Here Mary is not an impoverished Jewish peasant. Her father is the richest man in Israel and of royal blood. She herself is of impeccable morals and purity. Her purity is safeguarded from the time of her birth and demonstrated in her unusual upbringing, as she spends her young life, literally, in the temple, day and night, fed by the hand of an angel. The stories of the account demonstrate in particular her sexual purity. Not only is she a virgin at the time of her conception; she also remains a virgin, even after giving birth, as shown by the physical inspection of a skeptical midwife. Joseph himself never lays a finger on her. Moreover, he is not a poor carpenter, but an established building contractor. Finally, Mary’s spinning activity is not for money, it is to provide a curtain for the sacred temple of God.


From The Proto-Gospel of James (The Birth of Mary, the Revelation of James)

The Rich Joachim and His Self-Exile
1

(1) In the “Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” there was a very wealthy man Joachim, who used to offer a double portion of his gifts to the Lord, saying to himself, “The portion that is my surplus will be for all the people, and the portion that is for forgiveness will be for the Lord God as my atonement.” (2) Now the great day of the Lord drew near, and the sons of Israel were offering their gifts. Reuben stood before him and said, “You are not allowed to offer your gifts first, since you have not produced any offspring in Israel.”

(3) Joachim was very upset and went away to consult the book of the twelve tribes of the people, saying to himself, “I will examine the Book of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to see if I am the only one not to produce offspring in Israel.” And he searched and found that everyone who was righteous had raised up offspring in Israel. Then he remembered the patriarch Abraham, that at the end of his life the Lord God had given him a son, Isaac.

(4) Joachim was very upset and did not appear to his wife, but went out to the wilderness and pitched his tent there. Joachim fasted for forty days and nights, saying to himself, “I will not come down for either food or drink until the Lord my God visits me. My prayer will be my food and drink.”

***

Some Angelic Visitations
4

(1) Then, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive a child and give birth, and your offspring will be spoken of throughout the entire world.” Anna replied, “As the Lord God lives, whether my child is a boy or a girl, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it will minister to him its entire life.”

(2) Behold, two angels came, saying to her, “See, your husband Joachim is coming with his flocks.” For an angel of the Lord had descended to Joachim and said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down from here; see, your wife Anna has conceived a child.” (3) Joachim immediately went down and called his shepherds and said, “Bring me here ten lambs without spot or blemish, and the ten lambs will be for the Lord God; and bring me twelve young calves and the twelve calves will be for the priests and the council leaders, and bring a hundred male goats for all the people.”

(4) And behold, Joachim came with his flocks and Anna stood beside the gate and saw Joachim coming with his flocks; and running up to him she hung on his neck and said, “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me abundantly. For see, the widow is no longer a widow and I who am childless have conceived a child.” Then Joachim rested the first day in his home.

The Birth of Mary
5

(1) On the next day he brought his gifts as an offering, saying to himself, “If the Lord is gracious to me, the leafed plate of the priest’s mitre will make it known to me.” And Joachim offered his gifts and looked closely at the priest’s leafed mitre as he went up to the altar of the Lord; and he saw no sin in himself. Joachim then said, “Now I know that the Lord God has been gracious to me and forgiven me all my sins.” He went down from the temple of the Lord justified and came to his house.

(2) Some six months came to completion for Anna; and in the seventh month she gave birth. She asked the midwife, “What is it?” The midwife replied, “A girl.” Anna said, “My soul is exalted today.” And she laid the child down. When the days came to completion, Anna washed off the blood of her impurity, gave her breast to the child, and named her Mary.

Mary’s Early Life
6

(1) The child grew stronger every day. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground, to see if she could stand. She walked seven steps and came to her mother’s bosom. Her mother lifted her up and said, “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk at all on this ground until I have taken you up to the temple of the Lord.” Then she made a sanctuary in her bedroom and did not allow anything impure or unclean to pass through her lips. And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews and they entertained her.

(2) When the child had her first birthday, Joachim held a great feast and invited the chief priests, priests, scribes, council leaders, and all the people of Israel. Joachim brought the child out to the priests and they blessed her, saying, “O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name that will be famous forever, to all generations.” And all the people replied, “Let it be so! Amen.” They brought her to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying, “O Most High God, look upon this child and bless her with an ultimate blessing, equal to none.”

(3) Her mother took her back to the sanctuary in her bedroom and nursed the child. And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying, “I will sing a holy song to the Lord my God, for he has visited me and removed from me the reproach of my enemies. The Lord my God has given me the fruit of his righteousness, unique and abundant before him. Who will report to the sons of Reuben that Anna is now nursing a child? Listen closely, you twelve tribes of Israel: Anna is nursing a child!” And she laid her down to rest in the bedroom of her sanctuary and went out to serve the others. When the feast ended they descended happy, and they gave glory to the God of Israel.

***

Joseph Becomes Mary’s Guardian
8

(1) Her parents went away marveling, praising and glorifying God, the Master, that the child did not turn back. Mary was in the temple of the Lord, cared for like a dove, receiving her food from the hand of an angel.

(2) But when she reached her twelfth birthday, the priests held a council and said, “See, Mary has become twelve years old in the Lord’s temple. What then shall we do with her, to keep her from defiling the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” They said to the chief priest, “You have stood on the Lord’s altar. Go in and pray about her, and we will do whatever the Lord God reveals to you.” (3) The chief priest went in, taking the robe with twelve bells into the Holy of Holies; and he prayed about her. And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to him, “Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and gather the widowers of the people, and have each of them bring a rod; she will become the wife of the one to whom the Lord God gives a sign.” The heralds went out to all the countryside of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord was blown, and see, everyone came running.

***

Mary Spins for the Curtain in the Temple
10

(1) Then the priests held a council and said, “We should make a curtain for the Lord’s temple.” The priest said, “Call to me the undefiled virgins from the tribe of David.” The servants went out looking for them and found seven virgins. The priest then remembered that the child Mary was from the tribe of David, and that she was undefiled before God. The servants went out and led her back. (2) And they brought them into the Lord’s temple. And the priest said, “Cast lots before me to see who will spin the gold, the asbestos, the fine linen, the silk, the sapphire blue, the scarlet, and the true purple.” Mary drew the lot for the true purple and the scarlet, and taking them she returned home. At that time Zacharias became silent. Samuel took his place, until Zacharias spoke again. And Mary took the scarlet and began to spin it.

The Annunciation
11

(1) Mary took a pitcher and went out to fetch some water. And behold, she heard a voice saying, “Greetings, you who are favored! The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” Mary looked around, right and left, to see where the voice was coming from. She then entered her house frightened and set the pitcher down. Taking up the purple she sat on her chair and began to draw it out. (2) And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her and said, “Do not fear, Mary. For you have found favor before the Master of all. You will conceive a child from his Word.” But when she heard this she asked herself, “Am I to conceive from the living Lord God and give birth like every other woman?” (3) The angel of the Lord said to her, “Not so, Mary. For the power of God will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one born from you will be called the Son of the Highest. And you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary replied, “Behold the slave of the Lord is before him. May it happen to me as you have said.”

Mary Visits Elizabeth
12

(1) She made the purple and the scarlet, and brought them to the temple. The priest took them and blessed her, “Mary, the Lord God has made your name great; you will be blessed among all the generations of earth.”

(2) Full of joy, Mary went off to her relative Elizabeth. She knocked on the door; and when Elizabeth heard she cast aside the scarlet and ran to the door. When she opened it she blessed Mary and said, “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For see, the child in me leapt up and blessed you.” But Mary forgot the mysteries that the archangel Gabriel had spoken to her, and gazed at the sky and said, “Who am I, Lord, that all the women of earth will bless me?”

(3) She stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Day by day her own belly grew. Mary then returned home in fear, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. She was sixteen when these mysteries happened to her.

Joseph Discovers Mary’s Condition
13

(1) When she was in her sixth month, behold, Joseph returned from his buildings. As he came into the house he saw that she was pregnant. Striking his face he cast himself to the ground on sackcloth, weeping bitterly and saying, “How can I look upon the Lord God? How can I utter a prayer for this young girl? For I received her from the temple of the Lord God as a virgin, but I did not watch over her. Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to God, when the serpent came and found Eve alone, and led her astray, so too has this now happened to me.”

(2) Joseph rose up from the sackcloth, called Mary, and said to her, “You who have been cared for by God: why have you done this? Have you forgotten the Lord your God? Why have you humiliated your soul—you who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel?” (3) But she wept bitterly and said, “I am pure and have not had sex with any man.” Joseph replied to her, “How then have you become pregnant?” She said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know.”

***

The Authorities Discover Mary’s Condition
15

(1) But Annas the scribe came to see him and said, “Joseph, why have you not appeared before our council?” Joseph replied, “I was tired from my journey and rested on my first day back.” Annas then turned and saw that Mary was pregnant. (2) He left and ran off to the priest and said to him, “Joseph, the one you have vouched for, has committed a great sin.” The priest replied, “What has he done?” He said, “He has defiled the virgin he received from the Lord’s temple and has stolen her wedding rights. And he has not revealed this to the sons of Israel.” The priest asked, “Joseph, has done this?” Annas the scribe replied, “Send some servants, and you will find that the virgin is pregnant.” The servants went off and found her just as he had said. They brought her back to the judgment hall, along with Joseph.

(3) The high priest said to her, “Mary, why have you done this? Why have you humiliated your soul and forgotten the Lord your God? You who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel, and heard his hymns, and danced before him—why have you done this?” But she wept bitterly and said, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him and have not had sex with any man.”

(4) The priest then said, “Joseph, why have you done this?” Joseph replied, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure toward her.” The priest said, “Do not bear false witness, but speak the truth. You have stolen her wedding rights and not revealed it to the sons of Israel; and you have not bowed your head under the mighty hand that your offspring might be blessed.” Joseph kept his silence.

***

The Journey to Bethlehem
17

(1) An order went out from the king, Augustus, that everyone from Bethlehem of Judea was to be registered for a census. Joseph said, “I will register my sons. But what should I do about this child? How should I register her? As my wife? I would be too ashamed. As my daughter? The sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord will turn out as he wishes.”

(2) He saddled the donkey and seated her on it; and his son led it along, while Samuel followed behind. When they approached the third milestone, Joseph turned and saw that she was gloomy. He said to himself, “Maybe the child in her is causing her trouble.” Then Joseph turned again and saw her laughing. He said to her, “Mary, why is it that one time I see you laughing and at another time gloomy?” She replied, “Because my eyes see two peoples, one weeping and mourning and the other happy and rejoicing.”

(3) When they were half way there, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out.” He took her down from the donkey and said to her, “Where can I take you to hide your shame? For this place is a wilderness.”

Joseph Watches Time Stand Still
18

(1) He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.

(2) But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked down to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. The shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

The Birth of Jesus and the Witness of the Midwives
19

(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.

(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”

(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”

***

The Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents
21

(1) And behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judea. But there was a great disturbance in Bethlehem of Judea. For magi came saying, “Where is the king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.”

(2) When Herod heard, he was troubled; and he sent servants to the magi. He then summoned the high priests and asked them in the praetorium, “What does Scripture say about where the messiah is to be born?” They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for that is what is found in Scripture.” He then released them and asked the magi, “What sign did you see concerning the king who has been born?” The magi said, “We saw a magnificent star shining among these stars and overshadowing them, so that the other stars disappeared. And thus we knew that a king had been born in Israel, and we came to worship him.” Herod replied, “Go and look for him. If you find him, let me know, that I too may come to worship him.”

(3) The magi then left, and behold, the star they had seen in the east preceded them until they entered the cave, and it stood over the entrance of the cave. The magi saw the child with its mother, Mary, and they took from their packs gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (4) When they were warned by a revelation from an angel not to enter Judea, they went home another way.

***

The Death of Zacharias
23

(1) Herod was looking for John, and he sent servants to Zacharias, saying, “Where have you hidden your son?” He answered them, “I am a minister of God, constantly attending his temple. How could I know where my son is?” (2) The servants left and reported everything to Herod. Herod became angry and said, “His son is about to rule Israel.” He sent his servants back to him to say, “Tell me the truth: where is your son? For you know that I can shed your blood with my hand.” The servants went to report these things to him. (3) Zacharias responded, “I am God’s witness if you shed my blood. For the Master will receive my spirit, since you will be shedding innocent blood in the forecourt of the Lord’s temple.” Zacharias was murdered around dawn, but the sons of Israel did not know that he was murdered.

***

Epilogue
25

(1) But I James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem, hid myself away in the wilderness when there was a disturbance at the death of Herod, until the disturbance in Jerusalem came to an end. There I glorified God, the Master, who gave me the wisdom to write this account.

(2) Grace be with all those who fear the Lord. Amen.

© Oxford University Press 2014

A 7-year-old girl dies in U.S. custody. The White House disclaims responsibility. The White House needs lessons in logic. And compassion.

When I was hungry you gave me to eat
When I was thirsty you gave me to drink
Whatever you do to the least, you do it to Me

Washington Post:

Trump administration not to blame for ‘tragic’ death of 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody, White House says

A White House spokesman on Friday called the death of a 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody a “tragic situation” but said the Trump administration is not to blame and called on Congress to “disincentivize” migrants from making long treks to the southern U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday that the girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock after she was taken into custody last week for crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally with her father and a large group of migrants along a remote span of New Mexico desert.

Asked by a reporter if the administration is “taking any responsibility for the girl’s death,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”

According to CBP records, the girl and her father were detained about 10 p.m. Dec. 6 south of Lordsburg, N.M., as part of a group of 163 people who approached U.S. agents to turn themselves in.

More than eight hours later, the child began having seizures, CBP records show. Emergency responders, who arrived soon after, measured her body temperature at 105.7 degrees. According to a statement from CBP, she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.”

She died less than 24 hours after being transported by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso.

Here is the missing logic:

It is stipulated that the girl died in part from dehydration, also possibly from malnutrition.
It is stipulated by the U.S. CBP that she had not eaten or consumed water for several days.
The CPB had her in custody for eight hours before she showed symptoms.
During the eight hours she was in custody, she could have been given water and food, but apparently wasn’t.
Therefore, CPB could have done something to help prevent the death but didn’t, which indicates some responsibility.

As for the missing compassion, last night the White House held its grand Christmas Party. Maybe somehow, sometime, during the season, they will learn something. Miracles do happen.

Black Friday: The American Holiday Exclusively Devoted to Buying Things

Note: #GivingTuesday is next week.

Many holidays have been commercialized. But almost all of them struggle to maintain some semblance of their higher purpose and original meaning. Thanksgiving is still about diverse and somewhat antagonistic neighbors and strangers peacefully getting together for a big meal. Christmas is still about the arrival of someone who brings goodness and light to the world. The same abiding of meaning goes for Founding Fathers (July 4th) and mothers (Mother’s Day)

Black Friday is different. It is exclusively about commerce. The dark name signifies the start of the shopping season that determines whether retailers have a profitable year (be “in the black”). You can look behind the commercial for the true meaning of other holidays. The only thing behind Black Friday is buying. The only way to celebrate Black Friday is to buy things—hopefully at deep discounts.

Some will say this misses the point. Buying on Black Friday is only the preliminary step to gifting on Christmas. Buying cheaper means being able to buy more gifts for more people. That’s what the spirit of Christmas is really about.

Here is a thought for those who participated in Black Friday, in stores or, as is now common, online. Add up all the money you saved by getting Black Firday deals. Donate that amount to the charity of your choice. (Given that Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, food banks are one suggestion).

Next Tuesday is #GivingTuesday, a holiday more attuned to the spirit of the season. Americans are expected to spend $90 billion shopping on Black Friday and on the newer holiday of Cyber Monday. If you conservatively guess that shoppers saved just 10% on their purchases, that adds up to savings of $10 billion for those shoppers. So if Black Friday shoppers donated their $10 billion in savings on #GivingTuesday, the meaning of Black Friday would be radically transformed

Christmas Quiz: What’s Different About This Picture?

If you look closely at the painting above, you may notice something unusual about the adoring Magi.

The painting, Adoration of the Magi, is attributed to Vasco Fernandes (ca. 1480–ca. 1543). I’ve shown it to a number of people this Christmas, who all remarked that it is beautiful, but did not comment on anything else.

Can you see what it is unusual about it? If you know or think you do, don’t look first at the answer below.

 


 

Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010) by Brent Landau is the first-ever complete English translation of what purports to be a first-person account by the Magi themselves. Written sometime before the fifth century, it is not actually a chronicle by the Magi, but it is a spiritually fascinating addition to the usual Christmas story.

Landau writes:

The Revelation of the Magi, mostly narrated by the Magi in the first person, is a sweeping and imaginative work that begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with the Magi being baptized at the hands of the Apostle Thomas. These Magi are members of an ancient mystical order and reside in a semimythical land called Shir, located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean. The Revelation of the Magi says these individuals are called “Magi” in the language of their country because they pray in silence. The story implies that the name “Magi” is thus a play on the words silence and/or prayer, but that implication does not make sense in any of the most common languages spoken by early Christians. Despite this unsolved mystery, however, this description sharply distinguishes the Magi of this story from any of the most common ancient usages of the term magoi: these Magi are not magicians, astrologers, or even priests of the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism.

These mystics, who live in a mysterious, far-off land, as the Revelation of the Magi depicts its Magi, are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous, so it is very fitting for the Revelation of the Magi to trace the ancestry of the Magi back to such an illustrious founder. The Magi inherited from Seth a prophecy of supreme importance for the world: a star of indescribable brightness will someday appear, heralding the birth of God in human form. Seth himself had learned about this prophecy from his father, Adam, since the star originally had hovered over the Tree of Life, illumining all of Eden, before Adam’s sin caused the star to vanish.

Every month of every year, for thousands of years, the order of the Magi has carried out its ancient rituals in expectation of this star’s arrival. They ascend their country’s most sacred mountain, the Mountain of Victories, and pray in silence at the mouth of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, where Seth’s own prophetic books are housed and read by the Magi. Whenever one of the Magi dies, his son or one of his close relatives takes his place, and their order continues through the ages.

All of this lore about the origins of the Magi and their prophecy has been narrated, we are told, by the generation of the Magi that was alive to witness the coming of the star. They have gathered together to ascend the Mountain of Victories, as was their ancient custom, but suddenly the foretold star appears in the heavens. As promised, the star is indescribably bright, so bright that the sun becomes as faint as the daytime moon; yet because the Magi alone are worthy of guarding this prophecy, the star can be seen by no one but them. The star descends to the peak of the mountain and enters the Cave of Treasures, bidding the Magi to come inside. The Magi enter the cave and bow before the star, whose incredible light gradually dissipates to reveal a small, luminous human! This “star-child” reveals to the Magi that he is the Son of God, but—and this is of crucial importance—never calls himself by the familiar names Jesus or Christ. Nor do the Magi themselves ever call him by these names, and the absence of these designations will provide us with a critical clue about the central message of the Revelation of the Magi.

The star-child instructs the Magi to follow it to Jerusalem so that they may witness its birth and participate in the salvation God has planned for the entire world….

The Revelation of the Magi even influenced the way explorers of the New World understood the indigenous cultures they encountered. Two examples will suffice. First, there is the seventeenth-century Augustinian monk Antonio de la Calancha, who studied the Incan culture of Peru. He was impressed by the similarities between Andean traditional religion and Christianity, and he believed that the Apostle Thomas and the Magi must have missionized the region together, just as the Opus Imperfectum indicated. Second, the Franciscan missionary and historian Juan de Torquemada described the belief among some of the Aztecs that the conquistador Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl with recourse to this legend. Just as the Magi had stood atop the Mountain of Victories awaiting the fulfillment of their prophecy, Torquemada notes, so, too, did the Aztecs anxiously await the foretold return of Quetzalcoatl, and were all too willing to accept Cortés as the returned Quetzalcoatl when Spanish ships appeared off the Mexican coast.

And that is the story of how, in this painting, one of the Magi appears as a Native American.

Pope Francis: Change the Rules of the Socio-Economic System

“We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system. Imitating the Good Samaritan of the Gospel is not enough. An entrepreneur who is only a Good Samaritan does half of his duty: he takes care of today’s victims, but does not curtail those of tomorrow. It is simple to give a part of the profits, without embracing and touching the people who receive those ‘crumbs’. This can never be said enough — capitalism continues to produce discarded people whom it would then like to care for. ”
Pope Francis

The news in America this Christmas is dominated by talk about taxes and the economy. So it is appropriate that my Christmas message come from a speech about economics given by Pope Francis on 1 April 2017.


Greed, which by no coincidence is a capital sin, is the sin of idolatry because the accumulation of money per se becomes the aim of one’s own actions.

When capitalism makes the seeking of profit its only purpose, it runs the risk of becoming an idolatrous framework, a form of worship. The ‘goddess of fortune’ is increasingly the new divinity of a certain finance and of the whole system of gambling which is destroying millions of the world’s families, and which you rightly oppose. This idolatrous worship is a surrogate for eternal life. Individual products (cars, telephones …) get old and wear out, but if I have money or credit I can immediately buy others, deluding myself of conquering death….

Today, many initiatives, public and private, are being carried out to combat poverty. All this, on the one hand, is a growth in humanity. In the Bible, the poor, orphans, widows, those ‘discarded’ by the society of those times, were aided by tithing and the gleaning of grain. But most of the people remained poor; that aid was not sufficient to feed and care for everyone. There were many ‘discarded’ by society. Today we have invented other ways to care for, to feed, to teach the poor, and some of the seeds of the Bible have blossomed into more effective institutions than those of the past. The rationale for taxes also lies in this solidarity, which is negated by tax avoidance and evasion which, before being illegal acts, are acts which deny the basic law of life: mutual care.

But — and this can never be said enough — capitalism continues to produce discarded people whom it would then like to care for. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen. A serious form of poverty in a civilization is when it is no longer able to see its poor, who are first discarded and then hidden.

Aircraft pollute the atmosphere, but, with a small part of the cost of the ticket, they will plant trees to compensate for part of the damage created. Gambling companies finance campaigns to care for the pathological gamblers that they create. And the day that the weapons industry finances hospitals to care for the children mutilated by their bombs, the system will have reached its pinnacle.

The economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.

Therefore, we must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system. Imitating the Good Samaritan of the Gospel is not enough. Of course, when an entrepreneur or any person happens upon a victim, he or she is called to take care of the victim and, perhaps like the Good Samaritan, also to enlist the fraternal action of the market (the innkeeper)….An entrepreneur who is only a Good Samaritan does half of his duty: he takes care of today’s victims, but does not curtail those of tomorrow….

Capitalism knows philanthropy, not communion. It is simple to give a part of the profits, without embracing and touching the people who receive those ‘crumbs’. Instead, even just five loaves and two fishes can feed the multitude if they are the sharing of all our life. In the logic of the Gospel, if one does not give all of himself, he never gives enough of himself.

 

Christmas for Refugees

How could you say to me,
“Off to the hills like a bird!
For, look, the wicked bend back the bow,
they fix to the string their arrow
to shoot from the gloom at the upright.
The foundations destroyed,
what can a righteous man do?”
Psalms 11:1-2 (Robert Alter translation)

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
Matthew 1:13-14 (NRSV)

The wicked bend back the bow. The innocent flee. Give this Christmas to the UNHCR.

Revelation of the Magi

Magi

An excerpt from the story of the magi as told by the magi:

And (something) like the hand of a small person drew near in our eyes from the pillar and the star, at which we could not look, and it comforted us. And we saw the star enter the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, and the cave shone beyond measure. And a humble and kind voice made itself heard by us, which called out and said to us: “Enter inside without doubt, in love, and see a great and amazing vision.” And we were encouraged and comforted by the message of the voice. And we entered, being afraid, and we bowed our knees at the mouth of the cave because of the very abundance of the light. And when we rose at its command, we lifted our eyes and saw that light, which is unspeakable by the mouth of human beings.

And when it had concentrated itself, it appeared to us in the bodily form of a small and humble human, and he said to us: “Peace to you, sons of my hidden mysteries.” And again, we were astonished by the vision, and he said to us: “Do not doubt the vision that you have seen, that there has appeared to you that ineffable light of the voice of the hidden Father of heavenly majesty.”

Revelation of the Magi 12:4-13:1

Revelation of the Magi is written as a first-person account of the visit of the Wise Men, though that is unlikely. The available text is written in Syriac, with the story originating possibly as early as the 3rd century. Long forgotten, an English translation of it can now be found in Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010) by Brent Landau.

Only Candles Only Stars

 

Stars

Only Candles Only Stars

Let there be lights (מארת) in the vault of the heavens … and they shall be lights (מאורת) in the vault of the heavens (Genesis 1:14-16)

All of the lights
On the candles, trees, houses
Beneficial artifice
The best we can do.
Even the stars
Awakening guiding
Are incomplete.

The light that eludes
In the dark cold of winter
Hiding in plain sight.

Light the Icicle

icicles

Happy Hanukkah. Happy Christmas.


The Icicle

A zaddik told:

“On a winter’s day, I went to the bath with the master. It was so cold that icicles hung from the roofs. We entered and as soon as he did the Unification, the bath grew warm. He stood in the water for a very long time, until the candle began to drip and gutter. ‘Rabbi,’ I said, ‘the candle is guttering and going out.’

‘Fool,’ he answered, ‘take an icicle from the roof and light it! He who spoke to the oil and it leaped into flame, will speak to this too, and it will kindle.’ The icicle burned brightly for a good while, until I went home, and when I got home there was a little water in my hand.”

Martin Buber,  Tales of the Hasidim


“People ask, ‘What is the Buddha?’ An icicle forming in fire.”

Dogen Zenji