By Jim Perkinson, on Matthew 2:1-12
So, the stage is set. Matthew has an old horny codger taking up a young nubile teenager (could be a headline on CNN tomorrow) but then discovering he is late to the freshness. She already has a loaf in the oven. He resolves to part in quiet but is accosted by a Dream-Time appearance counseling adventure—the child is Spirit-born, the event is “Emmanuel,” the promise is deliverance. He wakes and tries to stay “woke.”
But then other “woke ones” climb onto stage. And the stage is harsh. This is the late hour of Herod the Great’s reign—a continuous train wreck of terror that makes the Orange-crested bluster and absurdities of our current leader seem like kindergarten tantrums in compare. Early Palestine here is a police state—in tactic and violence not too different from Palestinian experience today, though the roles beg careful decipherment and differentiation. We could do worse than to understand Jesus as mixed-blood Palestinian—as multi-Semitically-ancestored as any Gaza-dweller today! And likewise struggling under occupation and brutality.
But Herod too is half-breed—part-Jew, part-Edomite, but full-blown vicious. He has proven master-manipulator—marrying into elite Jewish Hasmonean circles to consolidate powers and then when tiring of the game, assassinating “inconvenient” family members, including his wife Miriam. And—as with the ruling sycophants sucking up to foreign potentates before him in occupied Israel—so with Herod and Rome! Wealth has been ceaselessly coerced from peasant labors and pain, distributed without restraint to cronies, land foreclosed, grievance punished, angry revolt crushed. Any gathering beyond two or three in public was subject to ever-watchful surveillance and possible arrest as “subversive.” And of course the compliment of such “downpressing ruthlessness” was out-of-control paranoia!
Enter the Magoi—reference in Matthew to Zoroastrian practitioners of indigenous Persian rites of divination. This is a text of interreligious dialogue. These are not “kings of Orient” as we so like to intone, but adepts at arts of reading sky and water, wind and earth for Wisdom not yet colonized by human technique or reduction. City-dwellers that we are, most frequently blanketed by orange-gray pollutants when we gaze up at night, Star-communication does not rank high on our list of favored sources of insight. We have lost one full half of Creation in coercing Night to behave like Day—and are much poorer for the effort. But the sense is ancient.
I recall when first my wife went camping with me in Colorado as guests at a Native American Sun Dance gathering, 9,000 feet up in the remote Rockies. The first night, shivering in freezing 3 AM air (even though it was July), not wanting to exit the sleeping bag to pee, finally her bladder overcame her reluctance. Stepping out of the tent, Lily was almost physically knocked over by the panoply of stars at that height—no clouds or smog, no particulates intervening, just the nearly infinite vastness of such Mysteriousness opening her eye and skin and body to unthinkable immensity! She could not read the particular star-patterns, but they read her like an epiphany—an explosion of Wonder piercing to the bone. She has not recovered to this day. There is no more profound appearance of Divinity than such an expanse. The night sky is the original bible. But like escaped slaves on the run North from Southern plantations, seeking solace and guidance from the Great Pole Star, the Magi were sky-literate. They could read constellations and planets. And came West to seek the Advent.
They were also savvy prophets, serving notice to the murderous Herod that Something was afoot in his realm that he could not control. “Where is he?” they asked. The king and all of Jerusalem were shaken at the question. The Roman-serving tyrant kept tight watch on the media of his day, monopolizing fake news for his own interests. But Wild Nature doesn’t answer to imperial dictum. Herod’s own “native informants”—the Jewish priests and ascribes—are pushed by the Star-Message to search the old texts. They point away from royal pomp and urban conceit. “Bethlehem” says ancestral memory—the least of the clans, the littlest of places—is the Divine heartthrob and will host the Event.
Herod tries to co-opt the Persian crew as de facto spies. Continuing to adhere to Astro-Advice, they end up in the little burg known as the “House of Bread,” open purses and gifts, lavishing a poor family with a rich offering, and then, once again instructed by Night and Dream-Time insight, depart back into the murk of the East, knowing royal wrath is in the offing. The Birth-Sign is a Star-Shout. But it will also be Child-Massacre and Immigrant Flight. And recurrently so! Reading the story for this season in 2018—think U.S. bombs falling on Yemeni kids and Honduran desperation at the Texan border.
The text is sheer warning. The advent does not take place at the center of orthodox belief or in the church pulpit. It is a coming first discerned by pagan fire-worshippers and (according to Luke) outlaw shepherds. Each is schooled by Sky and Night. Their text is the Wild—not what is written. Today, another kind of coming is imminent—announced now by Wild Water in Storm and Flood and Sea Rise, or in Her turning away from us in Drought and Lightning Strike. Standing Rock “Magi” and Ojibwa Water-Walking wise-women, circumambulating the Great Lakes Basin for years now, are signaling Something deep afoot in our own day. But I don’t think it will come like a baby in a feed-trough this time. And I fear we will prefer the pew and a Jesus tamed in a familiar “whoop” extolling Herod’s way of living. And this time, there are no Egypts left to flee to.