Friday, December 23, 2011

Post #129 - Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men

"We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him!" (Matthew 2:2)

It won't be surprising, in a blog written by a Christian about the land once known as Persia, to see this excerpt as a Christmas offering to my readers:

"The magi were a learned priestly caste that specialized in the study of the stars and planets.  They developed a complex system linking the movements of the stars with historical events.  Although Matthew says only that the magi who visited Jesus were 'from the East,' the center for the magi was in Persia.  They had formed themselves into a guild of scholars and seers during the time of the Medes in the seventh century BCE.  When the Persians conquered the Medes in the sixth century BCE, the magi readily adjusted to Persian rule.  Indeed, they were highly honored.  The royal and the wealthy alike sought advice from them.  When Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Persia -- still surviving today in part of Iran and among the Parsees of India -- the magi integrated their lore with the practices of that religion.
"People in the Mediterranean world expected a leader who would guide the nations into a golden age of order and prosperity.  No one was surprised that magi should seek to honor one whom the stars had announced.  It is also understandable that their arrival in Jerusalem would be treated with awe and respect.  It also caused Herod to take desperate measures to protect his throne.
"No one knows how many magi visited Jesus.  The number three is suggested by the three gifts:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Some early traditions give the number as twelve.  The names Gaspar [or Caspar], Melchior and Balthasar are first mentioned in the sixth century [CE].  Also, no one knows whether the men who visited Jesus were Persians or Jews from the East who had become magi.  Such early Christian art as the paintings in the second-century catacombs or Priscilla in Rome shows them dressed like Persians.  As early as the third century [CE], people began to believe that the magi who visited Jesus were kings.
"Adoration of the Magi" - Andrea Mantegna
"The word "magic" comes from magi.  Some of them earned their livings and cultivated power by soothsaying and performing tricks.  Two such people are censured in the New Testament:  Simon Magus (Acts 8:9) and Elymas the Magician (Acts 13:8).  But Matthew speaks with respect of the magi who traveled so far and so long to worship the child born king of the Jews."

[from Jesus:  His Life and Times, published by Willam Morrow & Co., Inc., NY]

There are still wise men -- and women -- in the country previously known as Persia.  It will surprise no American that the wisest are not always placed in positions of power in modern-day Iran.  We can only look to our own leaders, which have included the likes of Sen. Joseph ("Tailgunner Joe") McCarthy, Gov. Huey ("Kingfish") Long, Rep. David Duke (who might be called a "magician," since he once held the title of "Grand Wizard"). But, then, truly wise persons are always in short supply.  That is why the rest of us have to work hard to make up the wisdom deficit.

A blessed Christmas to all my Christian readers!  Happy Chanukah to my Jewish friends!  Best wishes of the season and a happy, peaceful New Year to my Muslim, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist friends and to all others, without exception.

[Blogger's note:  a friend, who also served in the Peace Corps in Iran, responded with the following additional information:]

"I think the Maji came from Hamadan [in western Iran near Iraq] but my Semnan family claimed they came from Khorasan [in northeastern Iran] and traveled through our town of Semnan [north-central Iran east of Tehran.  So I claim to have traveled on the same road they traveled.

"Luke, written in Greek, uses a particular term for “east.”  When it says, “we have seen his star in the East” the term relates to a specific astronomical event – the first sighting of a star on the eastern horizon just before sunrise makes it invisible.  It was common knowledge that stars would slowly move across the sky from east to west during the year, disappear below the horizon, and then reappear on the eastern horizon just before sunrise.  I do not remember the Greek word but the English is Heliacal – see definition below which relates to the Egyptian worship of the Dog Star."

heliacal - pertaining to or near the sun; especially the first rising of a star after and last setting before its invisibility owing to its conjunction with the sun; "the heliacal rising of the Dog Star"; "the heliacal or Sothic year is determined by the heliacal rising of Sothis (the Egyptian name for the Dog Star)"

"Heliacal rising is noteworthy to these ancient astronomers.  But in this case, the “star” was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces.  Pisces was the constellation relating to the house of Israel, according to some legends which I cannot cite.  Ergo, a big event happening in Israel as signaled by the “star.” 

"I thought I would check Wikipedia and found this reference to Dr. Karlis Kaufmanis – which is how I first heard about this when he spoke in Ames [Iowa] when I was teaching 6th grade back in the ancient days. 

"The Wikipedia entry for “Christmas star” amazed me for all the information that was there.  I might donate to them.

"So, Merry Christmas from Iowa where the sun rose this morning over the frozen cornfield in the same place it has always risen at this season.  (We have a good view of this from our bedroom window.)

According to modern translations, the magi told Herod that they saw the star "at its rising", which suggests an astronomical event - heliacal rising. The traditional translation of this phrase was "in the East," that is, when the magi were still resident in their eastern homelands. This interpretation is less likely because the Greek word for "east" used in this passage is singular, yet plural in those passages where it refers to the magi's homelands.
In 1614, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC. Although conjunctions were important in astrology, Kepler was not thinking in astrological terms. He argued (incorrectly) that a planetary conjunction could create a nova, which he linked to the Star of Bethlehem. Modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive. An ancient almanac has been found in Babylon which covers the events of this period, but does not indicate that the conjunctions were of any special interest. Dr. Karlis Kaufmanis argued that this was an astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces. [see Wikipedia for references]

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