December 20, 2004

Sunday Meditation: The Star


Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

         -- T. S. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi"

Theirs was the age of myth; a world without the web of lights that now obscures the night from our senses. It was a world lit by flaring torches, dim oil lamps, guttering candles, the phases of the moon and the broad river of stars. When the sun went down and night ascended, life withdrew into homes. Only the very rich or very poor were abroad.

The night sky, now so thin above us, was to them thick and close at hand. They lay on their hillsides, their roofs, or in rooms built for viewing the moon and the stars. They watched it all revolve above them. Remembered. Kept records. They saw beings in the heavens -- giants, animals, the things of myth -- and knew that in some way it was all connected. They studied the patterns of it all and from them fashioned the first science, astrology.

And, like the sciences since, they looked to astrology to give them hints about the future, about what they should do and whom they should become. They looked to it then, as many look to it now, to remove their doubt.

In time stronger sciences would rise upon the structures of the proto-sciences of astrology and alchemy. These sciences would push the first sciences into the realm of myth, speculation, and popular fantasy. The new sciences, you see, were much, much more about Reality. They would never be tossed aside in their time as so many playthings of mankind's youth. The authority of astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry and others was certain. Unlike astrology and alchemy, they would never be questioned. We had the evidence. There was no doubt. They were as eternal and as fixed in the truth as... well, as astrology was in 5 B.C.

Somewhere around 5 B.C. three astrologers noticed something unusual in the sky. It could have been a comet, it could have been a nova, it could have been a rare conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Whatever it was, it was strange enough for them to travel towards it. Or so it is said. Or so it is written. Or so it is proposed.

Myth or history? What is the reality of this road trip towards an obscure birth in a wretched town, during a not very pleasant passage in history, over 2,000 years in the past?

We do not know. We cannot know. It is beyond our gift and our resources to ever know the difference between an inspiring folk tale and the eyewitness accounts of something that, even today, would occupy the realm of the miraculous. For today, it would seem, in the realm of the mysteries, we no longer have any time for the good or the beautiful. We have only time for denigration.

In the past fortnight, the two failing newsweekly magazines of the US have endeavored, in their hamfisted way, to gin up some circulation with articles that purport to "examine" the miracles surrounding the advent of the divine into the world. In the manner of these publications, and the habits of the lazy intellects that produce them, a lot of time is spent on the issue of the Virginity of Mary, the mother of Christ. It's a scurrilous bit of work. A "hit piece" on Mary, in the jargon of the trade.

Beneath all the buffed prose and appeals to experts and quotes from scholars, this portion of the articles is little more than the coarse chortling of fraternity boys in the early drunken hours of the morning: "A virgin? Right! Sure. Anyone'd tell her husband that if she suddenly..."

In the offices of Time and Newsweek, there is no room for wonder beyond the fact that they are still publishing and still making payroll. Anything else, anything that might have within it the spark of the divine, is fit for nothing except denigration. This belief squats at the cold dead center of their editorial philosophy. And still they cannot comprehend why year after year, no matter how cheap they price their product, their circulation continues to decline. In none of their meetings do any of those attending look about them and declare that they have become "an alien people clutching their gods" in a land that finds them more and more irrelevant.

We will leave them in their conference rooms high above the Avenue of the Americas, and wish them a "Happy Holiday. Have a good one." It is far more interesting to think, instead, of those who had no doubts that what they had seen in the heavens was unusual enough to travel.

In 5 B.C. travel was not something undertaken lightly. It involved, across distances that would seem trivial today, risks of life and death at every turn. It required wealth and endurance. Few traveled for pleasure. To travel at all required a motivation far beyond the ordinary. So, at the very least, while we cannot know what was in the sky, we can be certain it was something very unusual.

In his short story, "The Star," Arthur Clarke's Jesuit narrator of the far future discovers the remnants of a civilization destroyed by a nova so that its light might announce the birth of Christ on Earth. The story has that ironic twist that is popular with authors and pleasing to readers. I remember it as making an impression on me when I was around 12 years old. But the story does not age well because the science of it does not age well.

In 1957, when I was twelve years old, we all lived in a far smaller universe with far fewer stars for God to destroy as some kind of announcement. Now that the inventory of stars has increased a million fold, I think it is safe to say He could have found one to suit His purpose that didn't involve destroying an alien race. He could simply pick one deeper in the field and, well, ramp up the volume. That sort of thing is just an afterthought once you've got omnipotence. It might even do double duty if you could use a star in an area that might need a few more heavy elements across a billion or two years.

Sages and mystics, Kepler and Clarke, and a host of others have all had their turns with the story of the Star. In the end it remains what it was when it began, a story. The story of a road trip by three astrologers, kings, wise men -- who saw something special in the heavens and determined to follow it wherever it led. To see something special beyond you and to follow it wherever it leads and prepare yourself for amazement. That's the inner theme of the story. Like all stories that survive, it is one of the heart and not of the head, and like the heart, it will abide.

"Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt."

To have evidence and no doubt. That is what those that put themselves forward as our "wise men" seem to propose to us day after day from their sterile rooms high above the avenues. They have the "undoubtable evidence" from which we should derive, they hope, doubt about all that for which they have no evidence. First and foremost in their vision is that we should have doubt in the original myths that have made us and sustained us as individuals and as a people. In their world, they would have us cast off the old myths and embrace their "new and improved myths -- complete with evidence."

Instead, every year it seems, that a tide has shifted in the hearts of men and we turn like a lodestone to the deeper myths of the heart; that place where The Star abides.

As before, this is indebted to Donald Sensing's SundaySermons, which I commend to your attention.
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Posted by Vanderleun at December 20, 2004 6:18 PM | TrackBack

"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

It is important to remember that nearly anything is possible for God. (He can't make 1+1=3 for example, but he can play with time and space miraculously however he likes.)

Nevertheless, human wisdom and reason leads us to acknowledge that just because God can act miraculously, how does he act usually?

Through process and ordinary lives in ordinary ways.

The arguments that Mary's virginity (and immaculate conception and ascension) is necessarily true and not mythic gilding of the lily, spiritual romanticism, fail after awhile.

The reason being that there is no argument that works by insisting that God could only act or create Jesus in this way; that Mary had to be pure in an extraordinary manner.

The evidence that this sect would seek to elevate its savior in the ancient world by resonant means is very strong. The very idea of Jesus as Atonement, a sacrificial lamb for the sins of others, was also central (and still is) to early Christian belief; yet, the very notion of bloody sacrifice is long separted from us by 1, Christian culture itself, and 2, the loss of actually making bloody sacrifices of animals and expecting a good result.

It becomes clear that we are dealing with cultural artifacts in these dogmas of faith, which faith is unable to disencumber itself from.

The quintessential Christian experience is not virginity of Mary or atonement by Jesus, but the experience of Jesus as God. That is why it still appeals after all these centuries and saves lives.

Posted by: mark at December 19, 2004 11:14 PM
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