My 2010 Christmas post was titled, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas 17 Times,” about how Christmas is perceived and experienced in prison. You might take a look if you haven’t read it already. I’m about to mark my 18th Christmas in prison, but I’m not giving this one over to the Grinch.
One annual constant of Christmas in prison is food. I described the prison menu in “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places,” awhile back, and it hasn’t changed much. But unlike most other prisoners, I try not to complain about prison food – not even when I can’t tell what it is. I go to most meals in the prison chow hall, and if I won’t eat what’s on my tray, I can always find someone who will.
In early December each year, prisoners here can purchase a 20-lb food package from a vendor. They drop hints to their families, and those without families scrape and save their meager prison pay all year. No one here wants to pass up a chance to purchase food they otherwise won’t see again until next year. Most are practical about it. They skip the candy and cookies to buy more sustaining items like real coffee, and meal alternatives they can save for the worst days in the prison chow hall.
The packages arrived last week, and for days prisoners have been bringing me samples of their culinary creations. They come to my cell door with an endless parade of sandwiches, wraps, and pizzas. I learned long ago that refusing the food leaves a lot of hurt feelings. They not only insist that I eat it, but they insist on staying until I declare that their culinary skill surpasses all others. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas when I have to struggle into my pants in the morning.
There’s a point to these visits. Prisoners tell me about their own back stories, and the prospect of another Christmas in prison. They want to hear that they are not without hope. Most of all, they want to know that Christmas means more than the empty, shallow “holiday season” it has become on TV.
But this morning, my Japanese friend, Koji, stopped by with some coffee he brewed using an old sock. (Trust me, you don’t want the gory details!). Koji handed me a cup – it’s pretty good, actually – and asked, “What can you tell me about the Magi?” That was odd because I’ve been thinking of writing about the Magi for Christmas. I told Koji I’ll let him read this post when finished. Maybe he’ll bring me more coffee made with that old sock of his. Lord, give me the strength to bear my blessings! Anyway, there’s no better place to begin the Magi story than St. Matthew’s own words:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, 0 Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people, Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ When they had heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” (Matthew 2: 1-12).
MYTH, MIDRASH, OR BOTH?
This story, as Saint Matthew relates it, is a myth. But don’t get me wrong. That does not mean the story isn’t true. In fact, I firmly believe that it is true. The word, “myth,” coming from the Greek “mythos,” simply means “story,” and makes no judgement on whether a story is historical. Myth is not synonymous with falsehood despite how its more modern meaning has been twisted into such a conclusion. In theology and Biblical studies, myth simply denotes a story imbued with rich theological and symbolic meaning, but that does not mean it’s devoid of historical truth.
Biblical myth is distinguished from legends and “folklore” by the way it offers explanations about the facts of a story. In myth, the explanations stand whether the facts stand or not, and the value of the story does not depend on its historical accuracy. Perhaps the best example is the Creation story of Genesis, Chapter 1. In my post, “A Day Without Yesterday,” the great Belgian physicist, Father Georges Lemaitre, turned modern cosmology on its head with his theory of the Big Bang. For Pope Pius XI, this proof of a universe that begins and ends in history affirmed the elemental truth of Biblical Creation.
When I say that the story of the Magi is true, however, I mean truth in both senses. The understanding the story conveys is the truth. The historical facts of the story are also the truth, and we have no reason to doubt them.
The account of the Magi is also a “midrash.” Midrash is a Hebrew term meaning “interpretation.” It’s a characteristic of many of the reflections in the Aggadah – which in Hebrew means “narrative.” The Aggadah is a collection of Rabbinic reflection and teaching gathered over a thousand years. Midrash is a type of literature from the Aggadah that interprets Biblical texts by linking them together and discerning their hidden meanings.
Like myth, midrash is not a declaration that a Biblical passage is not historical or true just because it contains elements of other Biblical texts. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi story points to many elements in Old Testament Scriptures. Jewish Christians hearing Saint Matthew’s account of the Magi, for example, would connect the Star in the East witnessed by the Magi with the star Balaam (a sort of Magus figure) envisioned arising out of Jacob in a dream-like account described in the Book of Numbers 24:17. Herod’s affront with the idea of a Hebrew King in the Magi account echoes Balaam’s vision as well. Herod 1s of the Edomite clan. In Balaam’s vision, the star arising out of Jacob is a portent that “Edom shall be dispossessed.” (Numbers 24:18).
The account of wicked King Herod feeling threatened by the life of the infant Jesus recalls clearly the Exodus account of a wicked Pharoah who, having enslaved the Jews, seeks the life of the infant Moses. And in the Infancy Narrative of Saint Luke’s Gospel, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth conceiving a child in their old age is clearly an echo of the Genesis story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.
In “Saint Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us,” I wrote of how St. Luke drew many midrashic links with the Hebrew Scriptures in his account of the Angelic visit to Mary at the Annunciation. The account of Mary visiting Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea recalls David visiting the very same place to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant as told in 2 Samuel, Chapter 6. Even the story of the future John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb in the presence of Mary is midrashic. In 2 Samuel, David leaps for joy in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. I find these echoes of the Old Testament to be fascinating, but they don’t leave the story’s historical truth in question, including the Magi story.
I have a modern analogy in my own family. I wrote about my father’s conversion in “What Do John Wayne and Pornchai Moontri Have in Common?” My father’s parents had four children. He grew up with two brothers and a sister. One of his brothers became a priest. A generation later, my father and mother had four children. I also grew up with two brothers and a sister. Both I and my father’s brother who became a priest were the second son in our families. Many of the stories of my own childhood have eerie echoes in my father’s childhood. This what is meant by midrash.
THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI
There are elements within our popular understanding of the story of the Magi, however, that history has added over the centuries. For example, nothing in Saint Matthew’s account indicates that the Magi were three in number. The sole hint is in the number of their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And despite the popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” there is nothing in Saint Matthew’s account to indicate that they were kings. This account became linked to a passage in Isaiah (60: 3,6):
“And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising . . . they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And linked as well was a passage about kings bringing tribute in Psalm 72, verse 10:
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.”
Much theological symbolism for the gifts themselves was reflected upon later. Saint Ireneaus held that the Gifts of the Magi signify Christ Incarnate. Gold, a symbol of royalty, signifies Christ the King. Frankincense, used throughout ancient Israel in the worship of God, signifies divinity, and myrrh, an anointing oil for burial, signifies the Passion and death of the Messiah.
Saint Gregory the Great added to this interpretation with the Gifts of the Magi symbolizing our duty toward Christ in our daily lives. Gold signifies Christ’s wisdom and our deference. Frankincense signifies our prayer and adoration of Christ, and myrrh signifies our daily sacrifices as a share in the suffering of Christ. The names of the Magi – Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – came out of a sixth century legend.
EAST OF EDEN
It’s widely held in Catholic scholarship that the Magi represent the first Gentiles to come to worship the Christ. There is one strain of scholarship that makes reference to the fact that they were astrologers who represented the world of magic. Most scholars see the Magi as followers of Zoroaster, an Indo-Iranian prophet who lived 12 centuries before Christ. Throughout the eastern world, followers of Zoroaster dominated religious thought for centuries. And yet there they are, kneeling in the presence of Christ. The symbolism is that as Christ reigns supreme, all other magic goes out of the world and loses its power and authority. It’s a beautiful and powerful image of the universal Kingship of Christ for all time, and the vast change his birth brought to the history of humankind.
I have an additional theory of my own about the hidden meaning of the account of the Magi, but I have been unable to find any reference to it in the work of any Biblical scholar, Catholic or otherwise. So I’m on my own in this wilderness of midrashic symbols. It’s true that the Magi represent all the world beyond Judaism coming into a covenant relationship with God through Christ. But great pains are taken by Saint Matthew to remind us repeatedly that the Magi are coming out of the East – and he capitalized “East.” It seems to me to be intended to designate more than just a compass point. The fact that they came from the East, and saw his star in the East, is repeated by Saint Matthew three times in this brief account.
In one of my posts on These Stone Walls – “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden” – I wrote of how both Adam and Eve were banished East of Eden after the Fall of Man (Genesis 3:24). It was both a punishment and a deterrent. God then placed a Cherubim with a flaming sword to the East of Eden to bar Man’s return.
A generation later, after the murder of his brother, Abel, Cain was also banished. Cain “went away from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the Land of Nod, East of Eden (Genesis 4:14). The “Land of Nod” has no other reference in all of Scripture, and is widely interpreted to have its origin in the Hebrew term, “nad,” which means “to wander.” Cain himself described his fate in just this way:
“From thy face I shall be hidden; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” (Genesis 4:14).
I count 21 references to an ill wind from the East throughout Sacred Scripture, but not one such reference after the Birth of Christ. An example is this one from the Prophet Isaiah:
“Measure by measure, by exile thou didst contend with them; he removed them with his fierce blast in the day of the east wind.” (Isaiah 27:8)
For me, the Magi represent also those who have fallen, who have become alienated from God and banished East of Eden. They saw his star there, and followed its light. I am in a place filled with men who lived their entire lives East of Eden, and for them the Magi are a sign of Good News – the very best news. Freedom can be found in only one place: and the way there is the Star of Bethlehem.
AMID THE ENCIRCLING GLOOM
My cell window faces West so my gaze is always out of the East. On this cold and gray December day, the sun is just now setting behind the high prison wall, and glistening upon the spirals of razor wire like tinsel. Its final glimmer of light is just now fading from view. I am reminded of my favorite prayer, a gift from another wise man, Blessed John Henry Newman, and it has become a tradition of sorts as the Sun sets on These Stone Walls at Christmas. I can hear the Magi praying this as they follow that Star out of the East. On my 18th Christmas in prison, this is my prayer for you as well:
Lead, kindly Light,
Amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet;
I do not ask to see the distant scene;
One step enough for me.
I was not ever thus,
Nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blessed me,
Sure it still will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent
Till the night is gone,
And with the morn those Angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
The readers of These Stone Walls have cast a light into the darkness and isolation of prison this year. It’s a light that illuminates the path from East of Eden, and it is magnified ever so brightly, in my life and in yours, by the Birth of Christ. The darkness can never, ever, ever overcome it.