Transcending the Tribe
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
So lets talk about those strange fellows present in every crèche, highlight of every pageant, subject of story and song. We three kings …. no they were not. The word is Magi, a kind of astrologer priest common to Syria and Iran in those days.
But we do owe them a lot, especially the kids. Because it was undoubtedly they who associated the birth with the giving of gifts. Others have taken up the task in subsequent cultures and times. In Germany it is the Christ child who puts the packages under the tree on Christmas Eve. But throughout Europe the children dress up in three’s and tour their neighborhood collecting for the poor. Here in our more secular west it is, of course, Santa Claus. Interestingly, in Syria it is one of their camels that does the job.
But throughout the eastern world of Christendom it is on their night, Twelfth Night, the night they arrived at a house in Bethlehem, that Christmas is celebrated. Our friends in the Assyrian Orthodox Church of Jerusalem will gather for Christmas dinner on January 6. A number of years we have been privileged to share it with them.
So what do we know about them, or rather what do we not know. We don’t know how many they were. The story does not say. The idea of three probably comes from the gifts. In the Orient tradition favors twelve. A painting in the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus in Rome shows two. A painting in the Lateran Museum shows three. One in the catacombs of Domitilla, four. A vase in the Kircher Museum in Paris, gives us eight. So take your pick.
The names are as uncertain as the number. Among the Latins from the 7th century, we have Gaspar, Melchior, and St. Balthasar. The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph. One wag comments that in New York, they are Hart, Shaffner and Marx.
But for all we don’t know, it is, never theless, a likely story. Romans Virgil, Horace, Tacitus and Suetonius bear witness that at the time of the birth of Jesus there was throughout the Roman Empire a general unrest and expectation of a Golden Age and a great deliverer. The story says the Magi came from the East. Only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonian had a Magian priesthood at that time. In Persia they were the advisors of royalty. Around this time we read of Tiridates, King of Armenis, visiting Nero with his Magi along with him. Seneca tells us of Persian Magi in Athens sacrificing to the memory of Plato.
So Persian Magi wandered the then known world in quest of the rule of the new age dawning. August, the Roman Emperor, was being hailed by some as the Savior of the World. Ancient paintings show the Magi bowing before a boy child seated on Mary’s lap in a home. Tradition has it that they were later baptized by St. Thomas, that their remains were discovered in Persia by St.Helena, brought to Constantinople, then to Milan in the 5th Century and to Cologne in 1163, where you may see the tomb to this day.
So there you are, probably as much or more than you want to know about these two, three, four, eight, twelve fellows. Yes, they were men. Perhaps you have heard about how different the story would have been had they been women. They would have asked for directions. They would have arrived on time. They would have helped to deliver the baby. They would have cleaned the stable. They would have made a casserole. They would have brought practical gifts.
But now we need to ask the more important question. Why, of all the New Testament writers, does Matthew alone feel it necessary to tell the story and some seventy years after the event? Simply for the fun of it? Hardly. Matthew is writing to a growing group of Jesus people in Antioch, the town where they were first called Christians, the town where a large number of Gentiles had joined the Jewish community in worshipping their God, especially as they had come to know him in this Jesus of Nazareth.
Now it is not hard to imagine the kind of problems this would engender. An ever smaller group of old-timers with a heritage of loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, overwhelmed by this new crowd of recent converts from paganism with their rather relaxed attitudes to Jewish customs and law. Rancor and division was on the door step.
Matthew writes to them to tell them two things. To tell the newcomers to remind them that the God they now worshipped was the Jewish God. To tell the old timers that this God had come in Jesus with a radically new Spirit which opened up the community to all comers, no matter their ethnic heritage or social standing. Indeed, as Paul wrote even earlier. In the spirit of this Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free. Now it is hard to exaggerate what a revolution in the story of humankind, this moment was. In a world divided between Jews and non-Jews, slaves and freemen, men and women, a tribal world where everyone knew his place and dare not leave it, a new community of the Spirit of Jesus that was trans-cultural, that saw all men and women, children whatever status and blood, as first of all children of one Father.
Look, writes Matthew, at the birth of this Spirit in Jesus, it was not the pious of Jerusalem who showed up. It was these crazy heretics, strangers from a pagan land, whose way of life violated everything the good Jew believed in. It was they who were welcomed at that house in Bethlehem. We really tend to read the story backward. Isn’t it wonderful that these royal ones honor the baby? It really is the other way around in Matthew’s head. It is the presence of God in the baby which honors these aliens by letting them in.
To say to his people, look, from the very beginning this Spirit and Child was open to all comers, no matter how strange, no matter how repugnant. Even so, you who embrace his spirit must find room in year hearts for all God’s children. And so it was a community that grew like wildfire, attracting especially women and slaves. Half the Empire consisted of women and slaves. Attracting the poor and dislocated that wandered the growing urban centuries. Here a vision of one tribe, the human tribe transcending all the secondary sources of identity and history.
And is this not a major problem in our world today. The persistence of tribal identity and pride. Think Iraq with Kurds, Shias, Sunnis, Turks. Think the Balkans. Think India and Pakistan. Think Tutsis and Hutus. For that matter, tribalism is not some far off problem. It lurks in more mild but destructive ways in our own world, in school cafeterias, gangs, racial groupings. We all run the temptation of making our kind the ruling identity, the greater self-interest.
What happens when you seek as a religion to capture and control a spirit like that of Jesus, organize it with hierarchy and rules that separate and exclude. Do you not tend to become just one more tribe among many. Think Constantine excluding heretics right and left. Think Northern Ireland. The church that bears his name has not escaped the temptation of the tribe. We seek to win the world in the name of Jesus but have not demonstrated that the world would be much different if all joined our tribe.
But this spirit born into this world on Christmas has, in fact, made its mark down the centuries. Rodney Stark, sociologist out at the University of Oregon, demonstrates quite convincingly that the Christian conception of God come in Jesus led to the western abolition of slavery and enobled the role and independence of women and children, however haltingly, however slowly. Vast regions of the world where this spirit does not hold sway even today tolerate slavery, traffic in human lives, concubinage, polygamy, traffic in people. The Spirit of the Christmas child is at work.
Many years ago in India, a group of men traveling through desolate country found a seriously wounded man lying beside the road. They carried him to the Christian mission hospital and asked the physician who met them at the door if a bed was available. The physician looked at the injured man and immediately saw that he was an Afghan, a member of the warring Patau tribe. “Bring him in,” he said, “For him we have a bed.” When the physician examined the man, he found that an attacker had seriously injured his eyes and the man’s sight was imperiled. The man was desparate with fear and rage, pleading with the doctor to restore his sight so that he could find his attacker and extract retribution. “I want revenge,” he screamed. “I want to kill him.”
The doctor told the man that he was in a Christian hospital, that Jesus had come to show us how to love and forgive even our enemies. The man listened unmoved. Revenge was his only goal, vengeance the only reality. The doctor rose, saying that he needed to attend to other patients. He promised to return to tell the man a story, a story about a person who took revenge. Long ago, he later began his story, the British government had sent a man to serve as envoy to Afghanistan, but as he traveled to his new post, he was attacked on the road by a hostile tribe, and thrown into a shabby make-shift prison. There was only one other prisoner, and the two suffered through their ordeal together, poorly clothed, badly fed, and mistreated cruelly by the guards.
Their only comfort was a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, which had been given to the envoy by his sister in England.
She had inscribed her name along with a message of good will on the first page. The book served not only as a source for their prayers, but also as a diary, as a place to record their daily experiences. The margins of the prayer book became a journal of their anguish and their faith.
The two prisoners were never heard from again. Their families and friends waited for news that never came. Over twenty years later, a man browsing through a second-hand shop found the prayer book. How it got there, no one can say. But, after reading some of the journal entries in the margin, he recognized its value, located the sister whose name was in the front, and sent it to her.
With deep heartache she read each entry. When she came to the last one, she noted that it was in a different hand. It said simply that the two had been taken from their cell, publicly flogged and then forced to dig their own graves before being executed. At that moment she knew what she must do. She was not wealthy, the doctor continued, but she marshaled all the money she could and sent it to this mission hospital. Her instructions were that the money was to be used to keep a bed free at all times for a sick or wounded Afghan. This was to be her revenge for her brother’s torture in the hands of Afghans and his death in their country. “My friend,” said the doctor, “you are now lying in that bed. Your care is her revenge.”
Now that is a pretty dramatic example of the spirit that was born into this world in Bethlehem town. And we will probably be challenged to match it in our attachment to Jesus. So, therefore, I must tell another, also true.
A woman who lives in Bel Air, California tells how she loves to go to Nordstrom department store there during the Christmas season, mostly just to enjoy the ambiance and the live Christmas music on all five floors. On one of her visits, she was on the top floor of the store looking at some of the finest dresses in the world, when the elevator doors opened and out stepped a very disheveled looking woman. Her clothes were dirty and torn, her hair was matted, her stockings were rolled down to her ankles. She just stood there holding a very full and very dirty gym bag in her hand and it was obvious that she probably wasn’t going to buy anything – all the dresses were in the multi-thousand-dollar category.
The witness of all this half-expected a security guard to come and show the woman out. But instead of a security guard, a stately saleswoman came over to the woman with the gym bag and asked, “May I help you, madam?” The woman said, “Yeah! I wanna buy a dress!” “Any particular kind of dress?” the saleswoman asked in a very kind and respectful manner. “A party dress!” the woman answered.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” said the saleswoman. “Follow me. I think we have some of the finest party dresses in the world.” The saleswoman then spent more than fifteen minutes helping the woman with the gym bag try on the dresses. But then the woman said very abruptly, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to buy a dress today!” Our witness in the adjoinging cubicle held her breath and heard the saleswoman say, “That’s all right.” And then, in a gentle voice she said, “But here’s my card. Should you come back to Nordstrom, I do hope that you’ll ask for me. I would consider it such a privilege to wait on you again.”
And is that not also the Spirit of that Babe grown tall, the spirit that looks beyond the differences that put off, and with respect and care sees and cares one by one, one human being, one child of God. Sees it even in crazy pagans who follow stars and worship pagan gods.
And all the story asks of us is that we be hungry for it, open to it, as were those strangers, two, three, four, eight or twelve. I try to say it in my poem this year:
Familiarity breeds the blind,
Even in O Little Town kids come every day.
Only strangers not our kind,
Weary and forlorn on a wandering way
Plod out of the morning hoping to find
Answer to their hunger of heart and mind.
Priests and politicians and people pass their day,
Doing their routines safe and right,
But stilled within against the need for light,
Long lost the humble heart that seeks a way
Beyond the comfortable daily grind.
But they haunt us, these three, at this time of year
As they pass through our day and disappear,
Reminding us that sometimes seeking bests certainty.
Hunger may trump knowing when it comes to divinity,
And eyes for the odd and out of the way
May lead us to eternity.
Copyright 2003 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.