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Monday, 28 December 2009
The Wise Men of the East
Topic: Christmas

The Magi, or Wise Men of the East, extended their ramifications over Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, India, and probably, though with a different name, over China, and indeed the whole known world. Their profession was of a mysterious nature. They laid claim to a familiar intercourse with the Gods. They placed themselves as mediators between heaven and earth, assumed the prerogative of revealing the will of beings of a nature superior to man, and pretended to show wonders and prodigies that surpassed any power which was merely human.

To understand this, we must bear in mind the state of knowledge in ancient times, where for the most part the cultivation of the mind, and an acquaintance with either science or art, were confined to a very small part of the population. In each of the nations we have mentioned, there was a particular caste or tribe of men, who, by the prerogative of their birth, were entitled to the advantages of science and a superior education, while the rest of their countrymen were destined to subsist by manual labour. This of necessity gave birth in the privileged few to an overweening sense of their own importance. They scarcely regarded the rest of their countrymen as beings of the same species with themselves; and, finding a strong line of distinction cutting them off from the herd, they had recourse to every practicable method for making that distinction still stronger. Wonder is one of the most obvious means of generating deference; and, by keeping to themselves the grounds and process of their skill, and presenting the results only, they were sure to excite the admiration and reverence of their contemporaries. This mode of proceeding further produced a re-action upon themselves. That which supplied and promised to supply to them so large a harvest of honour and fame, unavoidably became precious in their eyes. They pursued their discoveries with avidity, because few had access to their opportunities in that respect, and because, the profounder were their researches, the more sure they were of being looked up to by the public as having that in them which was sacred and inviolable. They spent their days and nights in these investigations. They shrank from no privation and labour. At the same time that in these labours they had at all times an eye to their darling object, an ascendancy over the minds of their countrymen at large, and the extorting from them a blind and implicit deference to their oracular decrees. They however loved their pursuits for the pursuits themselves. They felt their abstraction and their unlimited nature, and on that account contemplated them with admiration. They valued them (for such is the indestructible character of the human mind) for the pains they had bestowed on them. The sweat of their brow grew into a part as it were of the intrinsic merit of the articles; and that which had with so much pains been attained by them, they could not but regard as of inestimable worth.

Posted by Professorburton at 11:36 PM CST
Thursday, 24 December 2009
The Coming of the Magi from Persia (from The Book of the Bee)
Topic: Christmas

WHEN Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, and the star appeared to the Magi in the east, twelve Persian kings took offerings--gold and myrrh and frankincense--and came to worship Him. Their names are these: Zarwândâd the son of Artabân, and Hôrmîzdâd the son of Sîtârûk (Santarôk), Gûshnâsâph (Gushnasp) the son of Gûndaphar, and Arshakh the son of Mîhârôk; these four brought gold. Zarwândâd the son of Warzwâd, Îryâhô the son of Kesrô (Khosrau), Artahshisht the son of Holîtî, Ashtôn`âbôdan the son of Shîshrôn; these four brought myrrh. Mêhârôk the son of Hûhâm, Ahshîresh the son of Hasbân, Sardâlâh the son of Baladân, Merôdâch the son of Beldarân; these four brought frankincense. Some say that the offerings which the Magi brought and offered to our Lord had been laid in the Cave of Treasures by Adam; and Adam commanded Seth to hand them down from one to another until our Lord rose, and they brought (them), and offered (them) to Him. But this is not received by the Church. When the Magi came to Jerusalem, the whole city was moved; and Herod the king heard it and was moved. And he gathered together the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired about the place in which Christ should be born; and they told him, in Bethlehem of Judah, for so it is written in the prophet. Then Herod called the Magi, and flattered them, and commanded them to seek out the Child diligently, and when they had found Him to tell Herod, that he also might go and worship Him. When the Magi went forth from Herod, and journeyed along the road, the star rose again suddenly, and guided them until it came and stood over (the place) where the Child was. And when they entered the cave, and saw the Child with Mary His mother, they straightway fell down and worshipped Him, and opened their treasures, and offered unto Him offerings, gold and myrrh and frankincense. Gold for His kingship, and myrrh for His burial, and frankincense for His Godhead. And it was revealed to them in a dream that they should not return to Herod, and they went to their land by another way. Some say that the Magi took some of our Lord's swaddling bands with them as a blessed thing.

   Then Longinus the sage wrote to Augustus Caesar and said to him, 'Magians, kings of Persia, have come and entered thy kingdom, and have offered offerings to a child who is born in Judah; but who he is, and whose son he is, is not known to us.' Augustus Caesar wrote to Longinus, saying, 'Thou hast acted wisely in that thou hast made known to us (these things) and hast not hidden (them) from us.' He wrote also to Herod, and asked him to let him know the story of the Child. When Herod had made enquiries about the Child, and saw that he had been mocked by the Magi, he was wroth, and sent and slew all the children in Bethlehem and its borders, from two years old and downwards, according to the time which he had enquired of the Magi. The number of the children whom he slew was two thousand, but some say one thousand eight hundred. When John the son of Zechariah was sought for, his father took him and brought him before the altar; and he laid his hand upon him, and bestowed on him the priesthood, and then brought him out into the wilderness. When they could not find John, they slew Zechariah his father between the steps and the altar. They say that from the day when Zechariah was slain his blood bubbled up until Titus the son of Vespasian came and slew three hundred myriads of Jerusalem, and then the flow of blood ceased3. The father of the child Nathaniel also took him, and wrapped him round, and laid him under a fig-tree; and he was saved from slaughter. Hence our Lord said to Nathaniel, 'Before Philip called thee, I saw thee, when thou wast under the fig-tree.'

Posted by Professorburton at 3:22 PM CST
The Star of Bethlehem
Topic: Christmas

No narrative of Holy Scripture is more familiar to us than that of the visit of the wise men from the East to see Him that was born King of the Jews. It was towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great that they arrived at Jerusalem, and threw Herod the king and all the city into great excitement by their question—

"Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him."

Herod at once gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and demanded of them where the Messiah should be born. Their reply was distinct and unhesitating—

"In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the Prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young Child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."

So much, and no more are we told of the star of Bethlehem, and the story is as significant in its omissions as in that which it tells us.

What sort of a star it was that led the wise men; how they learnt from it that the King of the Jews was born; how it went before them; how it stood over where the young Child was, we do not know. Nor is it of the least importance that we should know. One verse more, and that a short one, would have answered these inquiries; it would have told us whether it was some conjunction of the planets; whether perchance it was a comet, or a "new" or "temporary" star; or whether it was a supernatural light, like the pillar of fire that guided the children of Israel in the wilderness. But that verse has not been given. The twelve or twenty additional words, which could have cleared up the matter, have been withheld, and there can be no doubt as to the reason. The "star," whatever its physical nature, was of no importance, except as a guide to the birthplace of the infant Jesus. Information about it would have drawn attention from the object of the narrative; it would have given to a mere sign-post the importance which belonged only to "the Word made flesh."

We are often told that the Bible should be studied precisely as any other book is studied. Yet before we can criticize any book, we must first ascertain what was the purpose that the author had in writing it. The history of England, for instance, has been written by many persons and from many points of view. One man has traced the succession of the dynasties, the relationships of the successive royal families, and the effect of the administrations of the various kings. Another has chiefly considered the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions. A third has concerned himself more with the different races that, by their fusion, have formed the nation as it is to-day. A fourth has dealt with the social condition of the people, the increase of comfort and luxury. To a fifth the true history of England is the story of its expansion, the foundation and growth of its colonial empire. While to a sixth, its religious history is the one that claims most attention, and the struggles with Rome, the rise and decay of Puritanism, and the development of modern thought will fill his pages. Each of these six will select just those facts, and those facts only, that are relevant to his subject. The introduction of irrelevant facts would be felt to mark the ignorant or unskilful workman. The master of his craft will keep in the background the details that have no bearing on his main purpose, and to those which have but a slight bearing he will give only such notice as their importance in this connection warrants.

The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God to us, and to teach us of our relationship to Him. It was not intended to gratify that natural and laudable curiosity which has been the foundation of the physical sciences. Our own efforts, our own intelligence can help us here, and the Scriptures have not been given us in order to save us the trouble of exerting them.

There is no reason for surprise, then, that the information given us concerning the star is, astronomically, so imperfect. We are, indeed, told but two facts concerning it. First that its appearance, in some way or other, informed the wise men, not of the birth of a king of the Jews, but of the King of the Jews, for Whose coming not Israel only, but more or less consciously the whole civilized world, was waiting. Next, having come to Judæa in consequence of this information, the "star" pointed out to them the actual spot where the new-born King was to be found. "It went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was." It may also be inferred from Matt. ii. 10 that in some way or other the wise men had for a time lost sight of the star, so that the two facts mentioned of it relate to two separate appearances. The first appearance induced them to leave the East, and set out for Judæa; the second pointed out to them the place at Bethlehem where the object of their search was to be found. Nothing is told us respecting the star except its work as a guide.

Some three centuries ago the ingenious and devout Kepler supposed that he could identify the Star with a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces. This conjunction took place in the month of May, b.c. 7, not very long before the birth of our Lord is supposed to have taken place.

But the late Prof. C. Pritchard has shown, first, that a similar and closer conjunction occurred 59 years earlier, and should therefore have brought a Magian deputation to Judæa then. Next, that the two planets never approached each other nearer than twice the apparent diameter of the moon, so that they would have appeared, not as one star, but as two. And thirdly, if the planets had seemed to stand over Bethlehem as the wise men left Jerusalem, they most assuredly would not have appeared to do so when they arrived at the little city. Ingenious as the suggestion was, it may be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration.

Another suggestion shows upon what slight foundations a well-rounded legend may be built. In the year 1572 a wonderful "new star" appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia. At its brightest it outshone Venus, and, though it gradually declined in splendour, it remained visible for some sixteen months. There have been other instances of outbursts of bright short-lived stars; and brief notices, in the annals of the years 1265 and 952 may have referred to such objects, but more probably these were comets. The guess was hazarded that these objects might be one and the same; that the star in Cassiopeia might be a "variable" star, bursting into brilliancy about every 315 or 316 years; that it was the star that announced the birth of our Lord, and that it would reappear towards the end of the nineteenth century to announce His second coming.

One thing more was lacking to make the legend complete, and this was supplied by the planet Venus, which shines with extraordinary brilliance when in particular parts of her orbit. On one of these occasions, when she was seen as a morning star in the east, some hazy recollection of the legend just noticed caused a number of people to hail her as none other than the star of Bethlehem at its predicted return.

There is no reason to suppose that the star of 1572 had ever appeared before that date, or will ever appear again. But in any case we are perfectly sure that it could not have been the star of Bethlehem. For Cassiopeia is a northern constellation, and the wise men, when they set out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem must have had Cassiopeia and all her stars behind them.

The fact that the "star" went before them and stood over where the young Child lay, gives the impression that it was some light, like the Shekinah glory resting on the Ark in the tabernacle, or the pillar of fire which led the children of Israel through the wilderness. But this view raises the questions as to the form in which it first appeared to the wise men when they were still in the East, and how they came to call it a star, when they must have recognized how very unstarlike it was. Whilst, if what they saw when in the East was really a star, it seems most difficult to understand how it can have appeared to go before them and to stand over the place where the young Child lay.

I have somewhere come across a legend which may possibly afford the clue, but I have not been able to find that the legend rests upon any authority. It is that the star had been lost in the daylight by the time that the wise men reached Jerusalem. It was therefore an evening star during their journey thither. But it is said that when they reached Bethlehem, apparently nearly at midday, one of them went to the well of the inn, in order to draw water. Looking down into the well, he saw the star, reflected from the surface of the water. This would of course be an intimation to them that the star was directly overhead, and its re-observation, under such unusual circumstances, would be a sufficient assurance that they had reached the right spot. Inquiry in the inn would lead to a knowledge of the visit of the shepherds, and of the angelic message which had told them where to find the Babe born in the city of David, "a Saviour, Which is Christ the Lord."

If this story be true, the "Star of Bethlehem" was probably a "new star," like that of 1572. Its first appearance would then have caused the Magi to set out on their journey, though it does not appear how they knew what it signified, unless we suppose that they were informed of it in a dream, just as they were afterwards warned of God not to return to Herod. Whilst they were travelling the course of the year would bring the star, which shone straight before them in the west after sunset every evening, nearer and nearer to the sun. We may suppose that, like other new stars, it gradually faded, so that by the time the wise men had reached Jerusalem they had lost sight of it altogether. Having thus lost it, they would probably not think of looking for it by daylight, for it is no easy thing to detect by daylight even Venus at her greatest brilliancy, unless one knows exactly where to look. The difficulty does not lie in any want of brightness, but in picking up and holding steadily so minute a point of light in the broad expanse of the gleaming sky. This difficulty would be overcome for them, according to this story, by the well, which acted like a tube to direct them exactly to the star, and like a telescope, to lessen the sky glare. It would be also necessary to suppose that the star was flashing out again with renewed brilliancy. Such a brief recovery of light has not been unknown in the case of some of our "new" or "temporary" stars.

I give the above story for what it is worth, but I attach no importance to it myself. Some, however, may feel that it removes what they had felt as a difficulty in the narrative,—namely, to understand how the star could "stand over where the young Child lay." It would also explain, what seems to be implied in the narrative, how it happened that the Magi alone, and not the Jews in general, perceived the star at its second appearance.

For myself, the narrative appears to me astronomically too incomplete for any astronomical conclusions to be drawn from it. The reticence of the narrative on all points, except those directly relating to our Lord Himself, is an illustration of the truth that the Scriptures were not written to instruct us in astronomy, or in any of the physical sciences, but that we might have eternal life.

Posted by Professorburton at 2:37 AM CST
Updated: Thursday, 24 December 2009 2:41 AM CST

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