Timothy George writes:
A STORY FOR EPIPHANY
Balthazar looks back.....
It was all a long time ago.
I was the youngest of the three: Caspar and Melchior are gone long since. But I well remember our journey together from Mesopotamia. Strange it was. A new leader for Israel foretold by the stars: what we found was a baby in a stable.
There’s always hope in a new child. But in Israel, under Herod and the Romans? Well, we learned about Herod, how brilliant he was, but unstable and suspicious. So we were glad to depart without telling him where we had been. We heard that the baby escaped Herod’s massacre, and rejoiced at that, while grieving for the innocents. Then there was silence – for thirty years.
It was news of a woman that alerted us that Jesus had grown into a powerful teacher and healer – some even said the Messiah that Israel was expecting. We remembered his mother, Mary, a strangely compelling woman, and she was constantly reported among his followers. So we knew that the hope we had found was coming to something.
But then Jesus was caught by the Temple authorities, who were as jealous as Herod, and put to death by the Romans, who always feared for law and order. A cruel death crucifixion, meant to stop anyone getting above themselves. Often it seemed to be cruelty for its own sake, and it seldom works anyway.
Strange how things get reinterpreted. My gift to the baby was myrrh, and they say that I brought it as a sign of tragedy foretold. But that’s not how it was. In my tradition myrrh is used as incense; and it’s a powerful physic too. The Egyptians use it for embalming, not us Zoroastrians. So I was showing my feelings for the child in the same way as Melchior with frankincense. But given what happened I can hardly complain if hindsight has changed my purpose.
We were certainly changed by our journey – not in our faith, but in our perceptions. Pilgrimages are like that. At the time all we had to go on was a prophecy and star signs that could well have been wrong. We hadn’t much to show for it at the time. But these things get under your skin, and finding ourselves was what mattered. So our journey never seemed a waste.
We continued to tell the story, about hope for Israel and humanity, and of course we got a good deal of mockery from our fellow magi. Sometimes we feared that they might have been right.
Yet things may now be stirring. There is a movement called The Way, and it seems to be based on what Jesus taught, about him being the way to find God. It comes out of the Jewish faith, but strips away all the unnecessary detail. It asks what we really mean by the commandment that Jews repeat every day, “Hear, O Israel, God is one and you must love him with everything you have and are”. Jesus also insisted on their second big commandment too, “You must love your neighbour as yourself”; and he brought the two together by implying that loving your neighbour was the best way of loving God. He said some surprising things too about who your real neighbour might be. That really is a Way – and a truth – for people to get a hold on. It turns a lot of conventional wisdom on its head.
But there’s more to it than that. The Way is open to everyone, not just to the Jews, and there’s a man called Paul who is taking the idea through parts of the Roman Empire. It’s not just a new way of looking at the Jewish scriptures. Central to The Way is the knowledge that, although he died, Jesus was brought back to life by God. So the cross on which he was executed is now not a sign of defeat, but a banner of victory over death and wrong thinking.
That is a vast idea, a symbol that might really inspire people. I am old now, and it is for others to take things forward. But, when you think about it, the hope brought by Jesus was the hope of something new, something outside existing institutions, something indeed that doesn’t depend on institutions, which usually end up serving themselves. I think that the Way of Jesus the Christ could take us far.
Happy New Year, Timothy George
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