Friday, January 9, 2009


Yes, I know you guys must be sick of reading my theological ruminations, but just one more. This last Tuesday was the day of the Epiphany, traditionally a more important feast than Christmas. It is the day that for the first time, God was made manifest through the person of Jesus Christ. This was the day that the three Magi, the wise men from Persia, arrived at the end of their long quest, and fell in adoration and worship before the Christ Child.

It's often said, by critics of Christianity, that Jesus was just a 'wise teacher', not God Incarnate, and that his initial followers saw him as such. "He was a wise teacher, a charismatic rabbi.", they say. "Later, myths grew up about him, and St. Paul invented the idea that he was God." Er, no. Regardless of whether you think that Jesus Christ was the Incarnate God, the Logos, the Son, it is clear that He claimed to be such, and that many of his early followers (the ones who realized what was going on) recognized Him as such. None of this 'wise teacher' business. This was made clear to me in a great homily I heard at last year's Epiphany service. We think of the gifts- gold, frankincense, and myrrh- as just another bunch of expensive substances. We laugh at how useless they would have been to a peasant Jewish family, and we laugh knowingly when Monty Python makes feeble jokes about Mary wanting to return the myrrh. But actually, each of these gifts is saturated with significance.

Gold signified glory and virtue, it was a gift given to a king.The gift of gold showed that the Magi recognized Christ's human nature, as the Son of Man, the longed-for messiah, the King who would say at the end of the world, "Behold, I make all things new." The gift of frankincense showed that they recognized His divine nature. Frankincense was the incense of religious ritual, it was what you offered to God. The Persians were recognizing what Caiaphas saw as blasphemy and what Pilate saw as treason, that Christ was not just a King but also a God. The myrrh, most powerfully and interesting, was an embalming perfume; it was used in preparing the bodies of the death. Through the gift of myrrh, the Persian Magi were prophecying that the Incarnate God, the Word made flesh, would die as a sacrifice for human sin, and that in a very real sense His death was the ultimate purpose of His human life. Behold the lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world. St. Ambrose of Milan says of the gifts One is the token of the dignity of a king, the other the symbol of divine majesty, the third is a service of honor to the dead, that does not destroy the body of the dead but preserves it. In the myrrh we see not just the prophecy of His death but of His resurrection: this was the God-King who would overcome death, and through whom all men could enjoy eternal life. As myrrh preserves the body of the dead, He would preserve their souls: but while myrrh preserves them for a time, He would preserve them for ever.

We often think of Christ as being the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy and of the Jewish faith, and He was. But He was so much more. He was the fulfilment of all that is good and true in all the religions of the world. Before the Logos was made incarnate at Bethlehem, dim glimpses and hints of what was to come had been revealed to the peoples of the world. Isaiah had prophecied a suffering servant, whose life and death would usher in a time of perfect love and perfect peace. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his wounds we are healed. Virgil, in his fourth eclogue, foretold (merely a couple decades before Christ) the birth of a boy who would usher in a new, paradisiacal age. Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign/ With a new breed of men sent down from heaven/ Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom / The iron shall cease, the golden race arise..." The Zoroastrians, of whom the Magi came, had prophecied a savior, born of a virgin , who would overcome death and allow men to attain eternal life. The victorious Saoshyant and his helpers... shall restore the world, which will (thenceforth) never grow old and never die, never decaying and never rotting, ever living and ever increasing, and master of its wish, when the dead will rise, when life and immortality will come, and the world will be restored at its wish; When the creation will grow deathless, - the prosperous creation of the Good Spirit, - and the Druj shall perish, though she may rush on every side to kill the holy beings; she and her hundredfold brood shall perish, as it is the will of the Lord. Others, too, had vague prophecies that make sense in the light of the coming of Christ: the Hindus, the Greeks, the Central American peoples. C.S. Lewis once said, 'I believe in Christ as I believe in the sun; not merely because I can see it but because by its light I see everything else.' He was right.

For centuries, the Persians have had a special relationship with the Jews, and with the Christians, and perhaps most of all with the various dualist heresies that sprang up within the Christian fold. Cyrus of Persia was the only non-Jewish king who was called "the Lord's anointed" by the Jewish prophets; along with Darius and the Persian king in Esther, he was a friend to the Jews, and they saw in him the hand of God. Persian culture influenced the Jews during the exile, and had a great influence on thinking about the devil, the angelic hierarchy, the origin of evil, and the afterlife. Indeed, without the effect of Persian religion it's doubtful that Christianity would have ever learned about the nature and origin of evil and the evil power- there's certainly no hint in Job, for example, that evil is a real and malignant power. I can only make sense out of this by concluding that the Persians did, in fact, have their own and special revelation: they lacked much that the Jews had, but also had some unique insights of their own that they could teach to the Jews and Christians who had hitherto not known them. And this is demonstrated, to me, by the coming of the Magi. The Jews had prophecied Christ but it was the Persians who were the first to recognize him for who and what He was.

I consider myself a Christian because I believe that Christ was God Incarnate, the Word made Flesh, and I basically accept the Nicene teaching about Him. One of the areas where I disagree with orthodox Christianity, though, is that I think they have never fully given enough weight to the existence of evil. Traditional Christian accounts of the problem of evil did not satisfy Ivan Karamazov, and they don't fully satisfy me.

I am compelled by my reason and conscience to believe that evil has an eternal existence of its own, its own fearsome power and its own bitter independence. For how could Good be truly Good unless it existed in opposition to Evil? and we know, as per Anselm, that God has always been perfectly Good. Moreover, unless evil was a powerful and independent force of its own, then how can we fully account for why there is so much evil that goes unchallenged and unatoned for in this world? We know that we shall finally be recompensed, in the hereafter and at the end of the world, that we shall enjoy a perfect and blessed eternal kingdom, and that it will have been worth walking a quadrillion quadrillion miles through hell for two seconds of joy in heaven. But why is there so much evil here and now? I'm not convinced that traditional Christian teaching can fully answer that question: the Persian belief that this is a world of division, a world at war, over which two great powers are fighting, makes more sense to me. The traditional, orthodox Christian teachings have, I think, underestimated the power of evil in the world, where the Persians did not.

The Persians, then, have had their own wisdom, their own knowledge, and their own revelation. And this knowledge, this revelation, these flashes of truth, were fulfilled by the coming of Christ. They worshipped him, and kneeled before him, and offered their prophetic tokens of His kingship, His divinity, and His saving death. Then, we are told, they returned home "by another way". They came as Zoroastrians, but they left as, in some sense, followers of Christ. They who had seen Christ came to know Christ, and returned more truly believing than they came, says St. Ambrose. Chrysostom tells us that they returned and spread belief in Christ into their own country, and that when St. Thomas the Apostle went to Persia on his way to India, he baptized them. Finally when Thomas came to that country they joined themselves to Him. St. Thomas, is by the way, a fascinating character, and you should read the legends about his life in the Acta Thomae....supposedly he could raise the dead, talk to snakes, and lots of other fascinating legends.

This is the infinite wisdom of God, that he brought about through the Persian Magi what he had prophecied through Isaiah, and in doing so fulfilled and completed the faith of both. "Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be." Amen.

No comments: