Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dr Thursday's First Thursday in Advent Post

Three Thursdays of Advent - a Trinity of Christmas Truths: 1. The Kings

Since in 2007 Advent is arranged so as to provide us with only three Thursdays, I have decided to take the ultimate GKC Christmas reference work - "The God in the Cave" from The Everlasting Man - and consider what GKC called "the trinity of truths symbolised here by the three types in the old Christmas story: the shepherds and the kings and that other king who warred upon the children." [CW2:316] Of course there are other ways of examining Christmas - there are countless ways - and while none of them shall really plunge to the depths of what really happened that night some 2000 years ago, it is part of the feast's true universality, not simply in its Chestertonian sense, that ALL of them happen to be true. The light, I mean the Light, pouring forth and radiating as from a great gemstone, is not lost in its fracturing - it is one of Dante's intangibles, and so is augmented. And each of us who take up the topic in our "hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons" [ibid CW2:301-2] by which that impossible "contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy" is "repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled" - each of us may have the satisfaction of being musicians in the Great Symphony of Christmas, where all who dare to play can give forth no dissonance.

And so, let us consider the Kings. (I must do them first as I can by no means treat Herod first, and I think it best to take Shepherds at the date closest to the Feast.)
Read more.

Who are these guys anyway? St. Matthew (chapter 2) calls them the "Magi". Most people, like GKC, call them "kings" or "Wise Men"; one modern translation calls them "astrologers". If we need to be modern, it would be far better to call them "scientists": the Bible text says very clearly "We observed his star in oriente". (The Greek and Latin term can be translated either "in the east" or "in rising".) Observed!!! Hmmm... astrologers concerned with the REAL sky? They are too busy with money, I mean charging people to tell about the future, crediting or blaming the poor wandering planets and the imaginary lines of the Zodiac. Never mind that no one is said to be born under the sign of Ophiuchus, though the sun definitely can be in that constellation, or that the twelve Zodiac constellations are hardly distributed evenly across the ecliptic, as reported in standard horoscopes. Never mind that the sun is still in Pisces at the Vernal Equinox - there are still some tie-dyed hippies with gray hair, swaying to the "Age of Aquarius" which is still over a century away. But people who actually look at the sky? Well, those of course have to be scientists, who are attentive to something real. If some of sky-watchers later went off and wrote silly predictions based on what they saw - who cares, whole reams of astronomers did that. (Another time we may explore this matter, as the history of science is most curious - think "phlogiston"!)

But why are they called "kings"? This is perhaps inferred from the fact that they brought royal treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Also possibly from the fact that they had a rapport of dignity with King Herod. (Common folk strutting into the palace to ask riddles of the King? Ha!) But even more likely, from the "Epiphany psalm", 71 in the Vulgate, 72 in the Hebrew numbering:
"The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts."
And there is also this prediction:
Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee. The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.
[Is 60, emphasis added. Note that the bit about the heart being enlarged comes up in the "Grinch" story, whose heart grew three sizes on Christmas Day.]
That quote even has something about observation: "Lift up thy eyes round about, and see"! Perhaps that is the best (and oldest) explanation of the use of "kings". The number "three" has all the numerological hints of mystery and reality, from the trisagion of Isaias 6:3 ("Holy holy holy") which we sing at Holy Mass to the triple-consonant roots of the Semitic languages, from the Trinity to the 64 entries in the Watson-Crick code by which DNA/RNA is translated into amino acids. But commentators explain it simply because St. Matthew names three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But if they are not (necessarily) kings, and are correctly called neither astrologers nor astronomers, what word should we use?

The Greek of St. Matthew uses the term "Magi" - the ancient word from Old Persian which also gives us "magic" - that is simply the "study" or discipline of the Magi. So perhaps we might say (with a bang on the table) that settles the Harry Potter debate. (hee hee) But really, the problem is simpler than that, though somehow connected. For the magic of the Magi was most likely neither sleight-of-hand (like a stage-magician) nor formal demonic invocation (which evil we give no references for). Neither was it simply a collection of superstitions, nor yet a compendium of science - but most likely an early hodge-podge of both, rather unfortunately hashed up and left unedited, since they had not yet had a true authority - an advisor, indeed a legal Advocate (or Paraclete, in the Greek) to come and assist them in their work.

Here I shall mention another word, sometimes scary in its use, but of no evil import in itself: the word "occult" - which simply means "hidden" (from claudere = to close or shut). Do not get mixed up here; this is not related to the word "cult" - another word with mixed senses - which comes from the root "to grow". When in the late 1600s Gilbert (I mean William Gilbert, not GKC!) wrote about the strange properties of amber (!) and of the strange stone of Magnesia, these things were considered occult. They, like Harry Potter's accio (Latin "I summon") caused the motion of things distant from themselves. Their forces were HIDDEN. No one knew how or why they worked. We now know somewhat more about them, though as our own Gilbert says, "we have to go on using the Greek name of amber as the only name of electricity because we have no notion what is the real name or nature of electricity." [The Common Man 170] You see, something "occult" is simply that - hidden. We use another Greek word, "mystery", which the Early Church used as we use "Sacrament" or "Eucharist" or even "Holy Mass" - to suggest something of a similar nature, and the word "mystery" can be just as liable to misunderstanding as "occult" can be. It is that sense of reversing that covering or hiding which gives us the opposite word, "detect" - with its derivatives "detection" and "detective" - and here we may possibly have the beginnings of a clue (sorry no pun intended) as to what the Magi were actually doing - though we must, at the same time, remember that there are things which are going to remain mysterious even when uncovered:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. ... The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:230-231]
OK, we've seen this important passage before, but how does this apply to the Magi and the Star? I will attempt to uncover a bit of the mystery.

People talk about this "Star of Bethlehem" as if it were something quite dramatic, something awesome, something utterly refulgent (fulgur=lightning) - a nova, a supernova, a rare conjunction of planets or of planets with bright stars. Perhaps. But it seems far more in keeping with the other parts of the Story to ponder a very different variation of quality.

Perhaps the dramatic truth of the Star was not its brilliance, but simply its location - its new appearance in that place! Perhaps it was, like the birth it heralded, something rather subtle. One had to be paying VERY CLOSE attention to the many stars of the ancient heavens in order to know whether they were the same from one night to the next - remember there was no amber-power - I mean electricity - and it was DARK at night. (Cf. the quote from Isaias above!) Obviously the common people knew, unlike we moderns, how there were some stars which "wandered" among the others, and so we still call them the Wanderers, though we say it in whittled-down Greek as "planets". But careful observers (the scientists, the wise, the Uncoverers?) might have seen something different - something NEW - that the Common Man might not have noticed.

Nor does this subtle, quiet, barely noticed astronomy become any less dramatic for the true scientist. There are so many examples of tiny, barely detected (note that word!) variations - which are no less important for being subtle: the proper motion of stars, the parallax of the "fixed stars", sunspots, the dark (or bright) lines in spectra... the list goes on and on. Indeed, with this idea, this part of the Gospel becomes a little more understandable. The scene of Herod's audience with the Magi changes to a much more human character. He asks for the "exact time of the star's appearance" - as if he's really saying, "Star? What star? (These Wise Guys say they saw a "new" star... yeah, sure.) Any of you see a new star? What star are they chattering on about? But just in case these Wise Guys are on to something, I'd better take steps..." Really - if there was something, star or planet or meteor - something obvious - out there to be seen, he would not have had to ask the Magi - he could have asked anyone. But perhaps, what the Magi saw was something subtle - something which only THEY saw, and only THEY interpreted. Something which spoke to them directly. But as true scientists, they acted on their discovery: they took almost incredibly expensive gifts and set off on an almost incredibly doubtful journey.

The thing we must remember is that their "research" found their desired result: they found the new-born king. He, like the star, was something subtle, something unexpected, something SMALL and NOT VERY SHINY, appearing in a place just about everyone else paid no attention to. But it was not at Herod's palace that they presented their gifts - outrageous gifts, symbolic gifts, gifts which may have meant the cessation of their own lifes, their research... gifts given to an Infant, asleep on His mother's lap! Later that Child would say to another, "Sell what you have and give it to the poor, then come and follow Me." They received a different order, to go back home another way. We know they did so, but we don't know anything more. Some stories tell that they were indeed Christians and went on to do the work of their Lord - their feast day is given in Butler's Lives of the Saints as July 23, and their bones are said to rest in the cathedral of Cologne, but no one can say more for certain.

What do the Magi and their work tell us today? How does such work apply to us living in a high-tech world 2000 years later? GKC tells us:
...they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names: Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things; and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. [cf. Jn 7:37] But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete. Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But, after all, these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child. ... Here it is the important point that the Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story, and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play, for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the Wise Men must be seeking wisdom; and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. And this is the light: that the Catholic creed is catholic and that nothing else is catholic. [note: The Greek word “catholic” means “universal”] The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal. It is far from certain, indeed, that they did not know it already. Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search. It is the realisation of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space. The Magicians were gazing at the strange pentacle with the human triangle reversed; and they have never come to the end of their calculations about it. For it is the paradox of that group in the cave, that while our emotions about it are of childish simplicity, our thoughts about it can branch with a never-ending complexity. And we can never reach the end even of our own ideas about the child who was a father and the mother who was a child.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:308-9, 310-311]
The pentacle, or five-pointed star, is an old symbol of magic - but, as J. R. R. Tolkien explains in his book on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight it was ALSO a symbol of the five wounds of Christ, the five Joyful mysteries, and other fives of Christian lore. It is also to be noted that the pentacle here described had not five, but six points, formed of two equilateral triangles, one inverted - also called the "Star of David"; GKC has more on this earlier in the same book [CW2:186-7]. You may recall that we ourselves have previously seen that same symbol in our discussion on fractals, which also "branch with a never-ending complexity". Yes, for even mathematics has its place at Christmas, in order that every topic "from pork to pyrotechnics" will illustrate "the truth of the only true philosophy". [GKC The Thing CW3:189]

Next week we shall see about the "steps" Herod took as a reaction to the stellar discovery (whatever it really was) of the Magi.

--Dr. Thursday

1 comment:

  1. The pentacle also symbolizes the dignity of man, for we are five-pointed stars (two arms, two legs, a head), and have five fingers on each hand. The five wounds of Christ also show us his humanity.

    The pentacle is probably a symbol for magic because magic seeks to channel the "occult" into human use; the emphasis is on man, not God. But this is playing with symbols, which is tricky business.

    The star that the Magi saw was what magic tries to be - a breakthrough of the supernatural into the natural, the glory of God descended into the five-pointed world of man.


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