Archive for the ‘Biblical Magi’ Tag

The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man   3 comments

Although Twelfth Night is no longer as important as it once was in Britain and elsewhere, Epiphany is still marked in the calendar as the day after Christmas when we think about the visit of the three travellers, the ‘wise men’ who made, as T S Eliot wrote in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi‘, ‘such a long journey at the worst time of the year’.

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pu...

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pushed for revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1900-1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another Story which is not so well-known tells us that, as is quite possible, there were more than three travellers, and that a fourth set out but failed to follow the star to reach Bethlehem in time to greet the infant Jesus. The original story, by the Nineteenth-century American writer Henry Van Dyke, is quite long, so, in my lessons this week, I start with the re-telling of it by Susan Summers, a Worcestershire teacher, in her recently published and beautifully illustrated book, The Greatest Gift (Bristol: Barefoot Books, 1997: www.barefoot-books.com) and then summarise the rest of the story in a form which, I hope, is accessible to second language learners at pre-intermediate level and above (it has been tested with adults and adolescents already). Whether or not you’re a teacher or formal learner, I hope you will enjoy the story and find it useful as well as inspiring…

Cover of "The Story of the Other Wise Man...

Cover of The Story of the Other Wise Man

Long ago in the city of Ecbatana, high among the mountains of Persia (in what today we call Iran), there lived a man named Artaban. From a tower at the end of his beautiful garden Artaban used to study the secrets of nature, especially the secrets of the night sky…One night, he and three of his friends, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, noticed a new star rising, which shone more brightly than any they had ever seen. They knew that this star signified the birth of a great teacher and they agreed to follow the star and ‘pay homage’ (or ‘worship’) to the child.

 

 

 

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Artaban made preparations for a long journey, taking with him a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl to give to the ‘King of Kings’. He was to meet his companions far to the East by the Temple of the Seven Spheres in Babylon. But on the way, he stopped to help a dying man and so arrived late at the temple. His friends had already departed, and desperate to see the new-born king, Artaban had to set off across the desert alone. So he returned to Babylon, where he sold his glittering sapphire and his beloved (but very tired) horse Vasda in exchange for a ‘caravan’ of camels. Then he set out across the desert.

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Like his three friends, Artaban had read the prophecies and studied the stars, so he knew that this ‘Son of David’ would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. As he came near to the town, he had to crouch down in the ditch by the Roman road as a troop of soldiers came galloping along with swords drawn. He followed them into a nearby village, and was startled to hear the cries of young children and their parents, all in great pain and distress. The soldiers were everywhere, breaking down doors and bringing from the houses the very young babies and infants, one and two years old.

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As Artaban sheltered in a doorway and could hear the sound of crying from inside the house. He pushed his way past the door and saw the frightened mother screening something with her body. She had hidden her child from the soldiers and was afraid they might return. Artaban comforted her and when later a soldier did look in, Artaban stood in front of the mother with his arms raised. Not wishing to risk his own life in a struggle with a man, the soldier left and soon they could hear the sound of retreating troops. The mother had saved her boy but was still very upset by the damage done to her poor home by the soldiers’ search for him. Again, Artaban comforted her, this time by giving her the ruby which was to have been part of his gift for the Christ-child of Bethlehem. With this she had the money to build a new home and a new life for her son.

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When Artaban reached Bethlehem, he found his way to Joseph‘s family home, but was told that Joseph, Mary and the baby had left shortly after his friends had visited, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The family was on their way to Gaza and the Via Maris, the Great ‘Sea Road’ to Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream of the danger from Herod, as had his friends, who had also set off in the opposite direction from Jerusalem, intending to return to Babylon via the Great Road to the North, via Damascus and Nineveh, to avoid Herod and his soldiers. Although Jesus’ refugee family had left behind the gifts of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, fearing what might happen if they were caught carrying them in Gaza, Artaban decided he would take the pearl with him in the hope that it may be of some use to them on their return to Galilee, as Joseph’s family told him they did not intend to return to Bethlehem until Herod was dead, though they wouldn’t tell him exactly where the family would be living. In any case, the pearl was small enough to be carefully hidden in the babe’s ‘swaddling clothes’. So, Artaban thanked Joseph’s family, hoping to catch up with the refugees on the road south to Egypt and then turn northwards after his friends. However, he could not find the family in Gaza, and though he followed the road all the way to the Nile, there was no sign of them anywhere in Egypt.

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Artaban returned to Palestine and searched for the boy king everywhere during the next thirty years, and always hoped to meet him one day and present him with the pearl. Towards the end of his search in Galilee, he began to hear many stories of Jesus’ actions and sayings, but somehow never caught up with him. Then, after thirty-three years had passed, he heard that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Passover, with his disciples. He hurried to catch up with the crowds from Galilee, but when he finally arrived in Jerusalem the feast was already happening and there were crowds everywhere. He heard that Jesus had been tried and condemned to death. Could he get to see him just once, perhaps with the aid of the precious pearl?

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On the Friday of Passover, just before the Jewish Sabbath, he pushed his way through the crowds towards the street where the condemned criminals carried their crosses up to a hill shaped like a skull, ‘Calvary’. Artaban passed through a crowded square where he found a young child being sold as a slave to pay for his family’s debts. He stood by a heartbroken woman whose boy was just then being offered for sale. As the bidding went on, the woman became more and more distressed. Just as the sale was being made, Artaban stepped forward and gave the mother the pearl with which to buy back her son. Now he had no gift left for Jesus.

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When he reached the Way of the Cross, Jesus was just passing. There was a great crowd and many people were leaning out of windows to get a better view of this ‘King of the Jews’ passing by in the narrow street below. From a balcony above Artaban saw a tile fall down, straight towards the head of the young boy he had just saved from slavery. He pushed the boy aside, and the tile hit his head instead. As he fell, dying, Jesus turned to him at that moment and, with a look which told Artaban that his story of sacrifice was known, said ‘as you have given to others, so you have given to me.

Epiphany: Out of the Orient   2 comments

My favourite Epiphany carol is ‘Falan-Tiding’ (‘Out of the Orient Crystal Skies’), not the modern five-part choral setting popular in the US, but using the simple tune of the Tyrolean carol ‘Ihr Hirten, atehet alle auf’. Last year at this time, in The Daily Telegraph, the choirmaster of Canterbury Cathedral, David Flood, chose it as his ‘most unfairly neglected’ carol. According to ‘the Oxford Book of Carols‘ it dates from about 1610. Interestingly, it starts with Matthew’s wise men and ends with Luke’s shepherds, which is truer to the narrative, since the Magi would have had to have left their homes weeks if not months before the birth, given the distance between Tehran and Jerusalem. We often put their story second, because they arrived after ‘the shepherds there about’, who only had to leave their tents and flocks on Bethlehem Down and run down the hillside, ‘singing all even in a rout, “Falan-tiding-dido!” ‘ The poetic and archaic English fits the simple tune beautifully to illustrate the nativity narrative perfectly:

002‘Out of the orient crystal skies

A blazing star did shine,

Showing the place where poorly lies

A blesséd babe divine,

Born of a maid of royal blood

Who Mary hight by name,

A sacred rose which once did bud

By grace of heavenly flame.

This shining star three kings did guide

Even from the furthest East,

To Bethlehem where it betide

This blessed babe did rest,

Laid in a silly* manger poor,

Betwixt an ox and ass,

Whom these three kings did all adore

As God’s high pleasure was.’

*’simple’

Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The verb ‘adore’ gives us the other phrase to describe ‘Epiphany’, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which is the subject of a ‘magical’ piece of orchestral music by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), from his ‘Trittico botticelliano’ of 1927, so called because it was inspired by three paintings by the Florentine Renaissance master in the Uffizi Gallery there. The central ‘panel’ is ‘L’aderazione dei Magi’, one of four surviving treatments by Botticelli of this subject, showing the presentation of the gifts by the Magi to the new-born Jesus among a crowd of onlookers. In transposing this scene into music, Respighi hinted at the Renaissance period by including the Advent antiphons of ‘Veni, Veni, Immanuel’, taking us back to the beginning of the Christmas period, and reminding us that, not only did the wise men set off weeks before the birth, but that they too recognised the importance of the child’s birth in the context of the Jewish scriptures. They were not simply astrologers, but Zoroastrians who found their wisdom from different traditions and sources, both terrestrial and celestial, occidental and oriental. To indicate this ‘blending’, Respighi blends the Latinate plainchants with occasional oriental melodic inflections. The ‘Moderato’ section then represents the Journey of the Magi, with a trudging two-bar repeated pattern in the strings and an oriental oboe melody. Other wind instruments, together with strings, suggest the presentation of the three gifts and the piece is then completed with the adoration suggested by a simple melody played by a bassoon, a lullaby for the Christ child, drawing on the bagpipe tunes played in Rome and other Italian villages during Advent. The oboe takes up the tune, merging it with a reprise of the opening Sicilian melody.

So, whether in music, picture or poetry, the Epiphany narrative has proved to be the most enduringly inspirational of all the Advent and Christmas stories set down by the gospel-writers. Its message of a ‘new dispensation’ in the form of a humble human birth is what gives it so many dimensions in time and space.

Christmas in Eastern Orthodox Churches   2 comments

English: Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Русский...

English: Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Русский: Русский поэт Борис Пастернак. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Christmas (when it comes; Christmas Day is on 7th in the Julian calendar) to all my Russian friends, colleagues, and former Russian-speaking students, as well as to other Eastern Orthodox adherents from other cultures. Just as we in the West finish our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations, so they begin in what was once the Eastern half of Christendom. I once took a group of Hungarian students ‘west’ for the first time on 6th January 1991, to Birmingham. We began with a tour of Selly Oak and Bourneville. We visited the Serbian Orthodox Church, where there was a truly wonderful Christmas Eve service taking place, led by a male voice choir singing vespers, the congregation standing in the domed auditorium. Even in the dim candle-light, the colourful frescoes added to the sacred atmosphere. We had travelled west to be transported east!

Here, I’ve ‘imported’ an ‘iconic’ picture from a sixteenth century text held in the Hungarian National Library, ‘A Napkeleti Bölcsek Hódolata’ (‘The Oriental Wise Astrologers’). A print of this appears in a multi-lingual anthology of poetry, ‘Karácsonyi csillag’, published by Európa Press, Budapest, in 1990, which I was given for my first Christmas in Hungary, just two weeks before the sojourn in Birmingham.

The illustration (below) appears opposite Boris Pasternak‘s poem in Russian, ‘Christmas Star’, with a translation into Hungarian provided by Judit Pór.

001A Napkeleti Bölcsek Hódolata, Francia Művész, 15. Század Vege. Hóráskönyv.

Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of S...
Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of Soviet Writers, in 1934 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ez a tél. Ez a tél.

Feleútban a hegynek

fel a sziklaodúban fázik a gyermek

Fuj a pusztai szél

Ökör melegíti, meleg lehelet.

Csak állnak a barlang

középben a barmok,

a valyu felett dús pára lebeg.

Lerázza a pásztornép

szalmát a subárol

félébren a távol

éjfélbe bámul már odafent.

Lenn hóban a kis temető meg a rét

meg a kert, kocsi rúdja

mered ki a bucka

alól, tele van csillaggal az ég.

Köztük mécsnél bátortalanabb

csillag – sose járt itt

azelőtt – haloványlik,

és Betlehemét keresi, oda tert…..

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‘Wes Hal!’ The final four days of Christmas to ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Epiphany’ (Jan 5th/6th)   6 comments

Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ‘Octave of Christmas‘ now over and having celebrated Jesus ‘the light of the gentiles’, non-Jews, we look forward to the ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ to those people, as represented in the journey and visit of the ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’. Of course, it has become traditional and convenient to place them in the crib scene on Christmas Eve, three of them, but they didn’t arrive until some time after the visit of shepherds arrived at the manger and probably visited Jesus at Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem. We don’t know how many there were of them, only that they presented three types of gift. Only Luke mentions the ‘manger’, simply a feeding trough for animals, and the story of the magi’s visit to ‘a house’ is found only in Matthew’s gospel, along with the escape into Egypt along the Via Maris, the Sea Road, to the south of Gaza, and Herod’s killing of the children of Bethlehem.

The Magi Journeying

The Magi Journeying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, in the final days of Christmas we can think about the journey of the magi, their visit to Herod, and their search for the child. Much has been written about this, in both words and music, perhaps the most well-read passage being from

T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi‘:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey.

In my family, there are three brothers, and when my Baptist Minister father was still alive, we would gather round the piano, each singing a solo verse of ‘We Three Kings‘ as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, each explaining the purposes of the gifts. There’s a story that when the three wise men first met on their journey to Palestine, the first was convinced that the child was to be a great King and that it was fitting to take a gift of gold. The second was equally sure that the child they were going to greet was to be a great High Priest, to be worshipped over all the world and for him the symbol of praise, incense, would be appropriate. The third wise man said that they were both wrong and that the child would grow up to be the one who would, by sacrifice of his own life, save the world. For such a person, myrrh was correct.

They journeyed together. As they neared the home of the infant Jesus they heard Mary singing The Magnificat. They listened to the words, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. ‘Ah,’ said the first wise man, ‘I was right. He will be a great Lord, a King.’ They paused as Mary continued her song with ‘My spirit doth rejoice in God‘. ‘There you are,’ said the second,  ‘He is to be a great High Priest, a God.’ Then Mary added, ‘My Saviour’, and the third wise man congratulated himself on his prophecy that Jesus would be both sacrifice and saviour. Of course, they were all correct in their prophesies and all three gifts were significant and appropriate to celebrate the birth of the whole world’s King, High Priest and Saviour.

Malvolio and the Countess

Malvolio and the Countess (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany, is not marked in Britain with the ceremonies accorded to it over a century ago. Some Churches still have their ‘Christingle’ services or ‘Crib’ services at this time, placing the three wise men, together with pages, or servants, in their positions in the stable, to complete the Christmas scene. All that remains in most homes on Twelfth Night in Britain is to take down the Christmas decorations, including the tree. However, four hundred years ago, the Night was important enough for Shakespeare to write a play about it, since parties were held in almost every household. As evening closed in, pastry cooks’ windows gleamed and good trade was had in the sale of ‘Twelfth Cakes’, large and small, decorated with stars, castles, dragons, kings, palaces and churches in white icing with varied colours. At each party a king or queen had to be discovered. This was a kind of lottery, for in each cake was hidden a pea or a bean. The child who found the bean became king, and the one finding the pea became queen. If the bean was first found by a girl, or vice versa, the finders had to choose a partner. Sometimes the peas and beans were replaced by silver coins. At some parties a complete court was appointed, and due honours paid to its various members.

In apple-producing areas of the West Country, until the late nineteenth century, men and women went out after dark, the men armed with shot guns and one of them carrying a bucket of cider which was then set down among the trees. Each man took a cup of cider and after drinking some, poured the remainder over the roots of the tree. He then placed a piece of Twelfth Cake in the fork of the tree ‘for the robin’. The company then called out, ‘Wes hal’ (‘wassail’) meaning ‘good health’. The men then raised their guns and shot into the air. The ceremony was intended to secure a good crop of apples in the coming year, and the final days of Christmas in these areas were known as ‘wassailing’ days, with each county developing its own song, the most famous of which are the Gower (south Wales), Somerset and Gloucestershire ‘wassails’. Naturally, there’s often a lot of overlap between them in both words and music:

Wassail

Wassail (Photo credit: Celtic Myth Podshow)

Wassail, and wassail, all over the town!

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;

Our cup it is made of the good ashen tree,

And so is our malt of the best barley:

No harm boys, no harm; no harm, boys, no harm;

And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.

‘We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear,

So that we may have cider when we come next year;

And where we have one barrel we hope you have ten,

So that we may have cider we come again:

For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail!

And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail!

Perhaps the carol, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was an attempt to transform these ancient customs into Christian symbols. Certainly, following Twelfth Night, we look forward to the childhood of Jesus, about which we know very little. The only story the gospel-writers give us is Luke’s story about his second visit to the temple in Jerusalem at twelve years of age, in which we see him as a lively lad noted for the way he went on asking questions. Luke also tells us twice that he grew strong in body and wisdom, gaining favour with both God and men. Rather like the apple trees, having God’s blessings upon him. So, may…

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, ...

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too;

And all the little children,

That round the table go:

Love and Joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you

A happy New Year!

‘And all your kin and kinsfolk,

That dwell both far and near;

I wish you a Merry Christmas,

And a happy New Year:

Love and Joy….!

From Ritson’s Ancient Songs and Ballads, 1829, copied from a seventeenth century manuscript.

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