Posts tagged ‘magi’

January 1, 2018

the Magi worship

Stichera from the Vespers of the Nativity (Translated by Fr. Seraphim Dedes):

What shall we offer you, O Christ, because You have appeared on earth as a man for our sakes? For each of the creatures made by You offers You its thanks: the Angels, their hymn; the heavens, the Star; the Shepherds, their wonder; the Magi, their gifts; the earth, the Cave; the desert the Manger; and we, a Virgin Mother. God before the ages, have mercy on us.

Lines from Orthros hymns on the Leavetaking of the Nativity (Antiochian Orthodox):

They that worshipped the stars did learn there from to worship You.

Come, you faithful, let us see where Christ the Saviour has been born; let us follow with the kings, even the Magi from the East, unto the place where the star directs their journey. For there, the Angels’ hosts sing praises ceaselessly.
In that you did bear the Giver of Life, O Virgin, you did redeem Adam from sin, and did give to Eve joy in the place of sadness.

I behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, and the manger a noble place in which has lain Christ the uncontained God.

When the Magi saw a new and strange star appearing suddenly, moving in a wonderful way, and transcending the stars of heaven in brightness, they were guiding by it to Christ.

The star declares, the Magi worship, the shepherds wonder, and creation rejoices.

Rejoice, O Living temple of God the King, in whom Christ having dwelt worked salvation. Wherefore, we with Gabriel do praise you.

 

Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Theophylactus, commenting on Saint Matthew’s Gospel, say that the star followed by the Magi was no ordinary star. Rather, it was “a divine and angelic power that appeared in the form of a star.”

Several lines in this selection of Nativity hymns represent the large body of very early Christian hymnography that is focused on the Magi. These foreign sages are the highest examples of human worship within the Nativity story. (Mary is the greatest example of co-operation with God; Joseph of faithful discernment and care; the shepherds of humble wonder and adoration; and the angles of the eternal and heavenly worship in which humans should participate.) As the ideal examples of human worship, the Persian Magi stand in for the conspicuous absence of the religious leaders among God’s people. The priests and scholars of Jerusalem have every opportunity to seek the Christ child and to worship him. However, they hang back and whisper in passive collaboration with the insane jealousies of King Herod. The religious leaders with their critical insider knowledge become complicit in the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem while the more uninformed pagans (who worshipped stars) brought the divine gifts that were due to this little baby. (As many scholars have noted, these gifts of the Magi are kingly and they also suggest care for the little child’s eventual death. However, the gifts are most importantly priestly and are connected to the Old Testament worship of God alone within the Holy of Holies.)

These two images below are from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome which date back to the 1st or 2nd century (and which have long been believed to contain graves of Christian martyrs who had the Apostle Peter as their Pastor). One is a faded picture of the Magi worshiping the Christ Child as He is held by Mary. The other is a very early image of Mary and the Child Jesus (next to them is a prophet, possibly Daniel, holding a scroll and pointing to the Bethlehem star that heralded the birth of the King of Kings).

magi

maria and child

Advertisements
December 11, 2012

taught by a Star

This sampling of ancient Christian hymns connected to Mary and the Nativity (and taken from Orthodox service books) represent a remarkable range of theological insights:

From the most common megalynarion (used in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom):

It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever blessed and most blameless and the Mother of our God:
More honourable than the Cherubim,
and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
true Theotokos, we magnify thee.

From the Propers for the Feast of St. Nicholas (Preparation for the Nativity of Christ):

O cave, make ready, for the Ewe Lamb comes, bearing Christ in her womb!
O manger, receive Him Who by a word has released the dwellers of earth from lawlessness!
Shepherds, abiding in the fields, bear witness to the fearful wonder!
You magi from Persia, offer to the King gold, myrrh and frankincense,
for the Lord has appeared from a Virgin Mother!
And she, bending over Him as a handmaiden,
worshiped Him as He lay in her arms, saying to Him:
“How were You sown as seed in me?
How have You grown within me,//
my Deliverer and my God?”

…Unwedded Virgin, from where have you come?
Who has given you birth?
Who is your mother?
How can you carry your Creator in your arms?
How is your womb free from corruption?

Most holy one, we see great and fearful mysteries upon earth fulfilled in you;
we adorn the cave as a house worthy of you;
we ask the heavens to send us a star,
for behold, the Magi proceed from the East to the West,
desiring to see the Salvation of mortal men//
shining in your arms as a Pillar of Flame.

From the Royal Hours of the Nativity:

Troparion (Tone 4)
Mary was of David’s seed, So she went with Joseph to register in Bethlehem. She bore in her womb the fruit not sown by man. The time for the birth was at hand. Since there was no room at the inn, The cave became a beautiful palace for the queen. Christ is born, raising up the image that fell of old.
…Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.

Troparion (Tone 8)
Make ready, O Bethlehem. Let the manger be prepared. Let the cave show its welcome. The truth comes and the shadow flees. God is born of a virgin and revealed to men. He is clothed in our flesh, and makes it divine. Therefore Adam is renewed, and cries with Eve, Thy favor has appeared on earth, O Lord, For the salvation of the human race.

From the Great Compline and Matins of the Nativity:

Nativity Troparion (Tone 4)
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom. For by it, those who worshiped the stars, were taught by a Star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!

The Litiya
Let heaven and earth as was foretold rejoice today. Angels and man let us keep the spiritual feast.
…Heaven and earth are united today for Christ is born. Today has God come to earth, and man gone up to heaven.

Aposticha
A great and marvelous wonder has come to pass this day: a Virgin bears a child, and her womb suffers no corruption. The Word is made flesh, yet ceases not to dwell with the Father.
…Today the Virgin gives birth to the Maker of all! Eden offers a cave. To those in darkness a star reveals Christ, the Sun! Wise men are enlightened by faith and worship with gifts.
…Sing, O Jerusalem! Make merry, all who love Zion! Today Adam’s ancient bonds are broken! Paradise is opened to us! The serpent is cast down! Long ago our first mother was deceived by him. Now he sees a woman become Mother of the Creator. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! Through Eve, woman became a tool of sin, bringing death to all flesh; but through Mary she becomes the first-fruits of salvation for all the world. For God, the All-Perfect is born of Her. By His birth He seals Her Virginity. He is bound in swaddling cloths to loose the bonds of sin! Through His birth, the pains of Eve are healed! Let all creation sing and dance for joy, for Christ has come to restore and to save our souls.

Fire is a symbol of God (“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire,” Deuteronomy 4:24), and the burning bush, which was not consumed by fire, is considered a symbol of Mary, who carried the fire of the Divinity in her womb and was not consumed by it. References to Mary’s womb containing God “without corruption” refer to the miraculous fact that her womb was not destroyed by God’s presence. Also, language about the Christ child “shining in your arms as a Pillar of Flame” recognize that Mary continued to handle the Divine fire in intimate ways even after Christ’s birth. Because Mary caries this fire and light, she is therefore also called the “Golden Lampstand” and “Golden Censor.” Mary’s identity as the “Unburnt Bush” is depicted here in a painting by Nicholas Froment called “The Burning Bush” (1476, Wood, 410 x 305 cm, Cathedrale Saint Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence):

Nicholas Froment The Burning Bush 1476 Wood 410 x 305 cm Cathedrale Saint Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence

This unburnt bush image also brings to mind the tree of life imagery used of Mary in the Nativity hymns above. Below are three examples of the traditional Orthodox “Unburnt Bush” icon. They depict Mary within a green or brown star (representing the bush) and superimposed over a red star (representing the fire). They are also filled with many other Old Testament symbols connected to Mary, Divine fire, and epiphany:

neopalimaya_kupina_2

Russian_-_Presentation_of_the_Virgin_in_the_Temple_and_the_Virgin_of_the_Burning_Bush_-_Walters_372664_-_Back

unburnt bush icons

January 9, 2012

coming beneath the light of that star

This first item is an unpublished prayer by Christine Perrin, responding to “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot (for a 9th grade history class event in 2012). Eliot’s poem is below.

Epiphany

Lord, you know we are walking this road
toward your star; we left, or tried to leave,
our palaces, our sherbets; leaving itself
has been painful and has shown us
the ambiguity in our hearts. Why did I think
that coming beneath the light of that star
would make this easier? You were born,
you died, and so must we. Be near
in the cursed dark, give us hope that one day,
without doubt, we will arrive, we will experience
the undiluted pleasure of your suffering
and loving face. Give us patience as we make
our way, falteringly, to the cleft in the rock.

And here is the poem by T.S. Eliot to which this prayer is a response:

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:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

December 23, 2011

our hearts burst open in the heat

The Magi

We kick our camels’ sides and curse, but they refuse to rise,
as if this house were the only oasis in a trackless desert,
and this child, playing in the doorway, the owner of the well.
They swing their ponderous heads slowly from side to side.
Their silver harness bells tinkle, their vermillion tassels flap,
and the child laughs.

He cannot be the one foretold to lead us to the abode of light,
where wisdom glistens like dewdrops on which new worlds curve.
We must have misread the astrological signs or been dazzled
by a wind-driven spark. But how do we explain the strange behavior
of our beasts? They stretch out their necks on the sand and sigh.
It sounds like prayer.

There being none other, we may as well present our gifts to him,
although they feel all wrong, as if we had carried precious salt
across steep mountain passes to offer to a prince living by the sea.
Worthless to us, we will leave our frankincense to purchase bread,
and our gold to pay for lessons. Of what use is myrrh? Before we go,
let us buy him a ball.

Far away, we perceive our granddaughters twirling prayer wheels.
Through our minds’ sanctum echoes the sound of ripe plums tumbling
into beggars’ bowls. In the ravine of the roan horse, lighting blasts
a single tree. Like closed pine cones, our hearts burst open in the heat!
We would not be more astonished if a star slipped from the night
to hover here beyond the dawn.

Too stunned to dismount, we gaze and gaze. How extraordinary!
The ordinary child!

From Firmament, a book of poems by Kathleen L. Housley. This is the opening poem in the first section of the collection, entitled “Lessons for a Young God.”

July 27, 2011

airy abeles set on a flare

The magi would have understood this imperative to look at the stars. Abeles (or white poplars) are a Eurasian salicaceous tree (Populus alba) having palmately (“like a palm with fingers extended”) lobed leaves covered on the underside with dense silvery-white hairs. Flares are “a fire or blaze of light used especially to signal, illuminate, or attract attention.” These silvery sentinels stand signaling, calling us to notice and take heed.

The Starlight Night

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
  O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
  The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
  Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
  Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) wrote with ecstatic vision and deep hope. This is a poem that I wish to wander through more slowly and more often. Angels and stars frequently overlap in scripture (even as the phrase “heavenly hosts” can mean either the stars or the armies of God, see the passage below). In the stories of Tolkien and Lewis, stars give their daughters in marriage to kings, sing order and beauty into the world and lend their light to the greatest jewels of the gods and elves.

The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.)

Journey of the Magi by Sassetta, c. 1435 (tempera and gold on wood; 8 1/2 x 11 3/4 in.; Metropolitan Museum of Art):

The Starry Night by Van Gogh, June 1889 (oil on canvas; 29 x 36 1/4 in.; Museum of Modern Art, New York; completed near the mental asylum of Saint-Remy 13 months before Van Gogh’s death):

%d bloggers like this: