ADORATION OF THE MAGI. PART 1
In the course of the autumn which preceded the birth of Jesus Christ, certain Chaldean Magi, learned in the study of the courses of the stars, discovered a star of the first magnitude, which they recognised by its extraordinary motion and other no less certain signs, as that star of Jacob, long before predicted by Balaam, which was to arise in their horizon at the time of the parturition of the Virgin. According to the ancient traditions of Iran, collected by Abulfarage, Zoroaster —the restorer of the science of the Magi, a learned man, a great astronomer, and well versed, moreover, in the theology of the Hebrews 1 —announced under the first successor of Cyras, and a short time after the rebuilding of the temple, that a divine infant, called to change the face of the world, would be born of a virgin, pure and immaculate, in the most western region of Asia. He added that a star unknown to their heavens would signalise this remarkable event, and that on its appearance the Magi would themselves bring presents to this young king. Faithful and religious executors of the wishes of Zoroaster, three of the most illustrious wise men of Babylon, 2 had no sooner remarked the star, than they sounded the cymbals of departure. Leaving behind them the city of Seleucidae, with its elegant edifices of palm-tree wood, 3 and Babylon, where the wind of the desert, moaning over immense ruins, seemed to tell to these silent wrecks the sinister oracles of the son of Amos, they left the country of date-palms, and took the sandy road of Palestine. Before them, like the pillar of light which guided the fugitive cohorts of Israel to the desert shores of the Red Sea, moved forward the star of the Messias. This new star, free from those unchangeable laws which rule the starry spheres, had no regular motion proper to itself; sometimes it advanced at the head of the caravan, always following a straight line in the direction of the west; sometimes it remained stationary above the tents pitched for the night, and seemed gently poised on the bosom of the clouds, like an albatross asleep in fields of air: at daybreak it gave the signal for departure, as it had given the one to halt. 4
At length, the lofty towers of Jerusalem appeared in the distance in the midst of the bare and wild summits of her mountains; the camels and the mares were quenching their thirst at a cistern by the way-side, when the Magi uttered a cry of surprise and affright; the star had just hidden itself in the heights of the sky, like an intelligent creature aware of some impending danger. 5
As much disconcerted as the navigators of ancient times when a barrier of black clouds concealed from them the polar star, the Magi consulted together for a moment. What was the meaning of the sudden disappearance of their brilliant guide ? Were they then at the end of their long journey, and should they set up the tent of abode ? That the infant king whom they came to adore from the banks of the Tigris should be found at Jerusalem, was a thing both possible and probable. "The God of heaven" they thought, " does not prolong his miracles in vain; they cease when human agency suffices: this is all in right order. What if the star has left us ? We can very well, without its aid, find him whom we seek in the capital of his dominions. To discover the cradle of the young King Messias, we have only to enter the first street strewed with green boughs, perfumed with essence of roses, and carpeted with drapery of rich colours embroidered with gold; the sound of the harps of the Hebrews, their dances, and their songs of joy, will sufficiently indicate to us in what direction to proceed. 1 Then urging on their animals, they passed the gate of the enclosure, and entered the ancient Sion between two files of barbarian soldiers.
The aspect of Jerusalem was sad : its population, weakened , and silent, had no appearance of joy or festivity; groups only formed here and there, to see the travellers pass by, whom they recognised by their long white robes, fastened by magnificent oriental girdles, and their bazubends 6 enriched with precious stones, and, above all, by the manly beauty of their features, as satraps of the great king. As they went along, the oriental cavaliers, leaning down upon the necks of their dromedaries, asked some of the numerous spectators who crowded the way, where was the new-born King of the Jews, whose star they had seen in Babylon. The people of Jerusalem, looking at one another in amazement, knew not what to answer to this inquiry. .... A King of the Jews! . . . . What king? They knew none but Herod, whom they abhorred from the bottom of their souls, and who had no infant son. The Magi, astonished on their part that all whom they interrogated should protest their ignorance, and seeing moreover around them no signs of festivity, moved in consternation up the crowded street which led to the ancient palace of David, and pitched their tents in its ruinous and shaded courts.
Nevertheless, the appearance of these grandees of Persia, who travelled very rarely at that time in the mountains of Judea, their startling questions, which astonished and intimidated at the same time a people whom the vast system of espionage organised by Herod 7 held in fear, soon put into commotion the most seditious and restless city of the East. The name of King Messias, pronounced by the Pharisees, ever on the alert to make the aged monarch uneasy about the future fortunes of his house and the duration of his own power, fell among the curious groups like a spark upon thatch. The King Messias? It was emancipation! It was conquest! It was glory! It was the banner of Juda waving like a ruler over the vanquished world! The Persian satraps passed for the first astrologers in the world ; 8 they had, no doubt, read in the stars the birth of the Hebrew Goel. 9 The heir of the kings of Juda was about to reascend the great throne of his ancestors, and drive from it the race of the Herods, those half-Jem, who were the slaves of Borne! A low rumour, like that which precedes the tempests of the ocean, soon circulated in the houses, in the streets, on the public places; never had the Jews of Jerusalem felt less disposed to conform to the royal edict, which forbade them to meddle with any affairs but their own. 10 In vain did the fierce soldiers of Herod line the ramparts and platforms of the towers ; the people were strong; they had no more fear, and they conspired in the street. "All Jerusalem was troubled," says the gospel, and it was soon the tyrant's turn to be troubled also.
Herod at that time was living in his palace at Jerusalem, the gardens of which—full of flowers, stocked with rare birds, and intersected with clear streams, which lost themselves beneath the branches of an actual little forest 11 —could not avert his mind from the gloomy recollections and sinister anticipations which rendered life an annoyance to him. Informed by the chief of his spies of the arrival of the Magi, and of their strange discourses, his broad forehead, wrinkled with anxious thoughts, darkened like a stormy sky, and his uneasiness was visible to every one.
The trouble of the King of the Jews is easily understood and explained by his position. Herod was neither the anointed of the Lord, nor the choice of the people; a branch of laurel, gathered in the idolatrous precincts of the Capitol, formed his tributary crown,—a crown of vassalage, entwined with thorns, every leaf of which had been paid for with heaps of gold abstracted from the savings of the rich and the indigence of the poor. Hated by the rich, whose heads he cut off at the first suspicion—feared by his relatives, whose tombs he tragically filled up—the horror of the priests, whose privileges he had trampled under foot—detested by the people for his doubtful religion and his foreign extraction— he could only oppose his courtiers, his assassins, his artists, and the opulent but small sect of Herodians, who were fascinated with his magnificence, to the active, ardent, and openly declared hatred of the rest of the nation. Often was the friend of Caesar insulted to his face by his obstinate subjects: the Pharisees, an artful and powerful sect, had refused with insult and derision to take the oath of fidelity to him; the Essenians, whose courage in battle rendered them formidable, had followed the example of the Pharisees; and the young and ebullient disciples of the doctors of the law had recently thrown down in open day, with their vengeful axes, the golden eagle which he had placed above the gate of the temple to please the Romans.
On every side plots, secretly favoured by his nearest and dearest relatives, were contrived in the dark against his life, and he was very near falling, in the crowded theatre, beneath the poignards of certain young high-minded men, who thought to do a deed of virtue and patriotism, by ridding the earth of a prince who reigned like a madman. 12 Attributing this unusual daring to the contempt inspired by his old age, he exhausted all the secrets of art to appear young again. 13 He would fain have persuaded himself and others, that he was still that young and brilliant Herod who surpassed the greater part of the Hebrews in gymnastic exercises : Herod, the bold rider, the expert hunter, the handsome and disdainful monarch, who had despised the love of that celebrated Queen of Egypt for whom Anthony had lost the empire of the world. But, alas ! the silvery network which began to mix with the black hair of his sons, their impatience to reign, the spirit of revolt and mutiny which crept in among the people, and the insolence of the banditti who re-commenced their depredations in Galilee, made him understand but too well that his reign drew near its end. Tormented with suspicions, and distrustful even of his spies, he wandered about, sometimes at night alone and in disguise, in the streets and public places of his capital ; 14 there he heard with his own ears the mattered imprecations, the cruel reproaches, the bitter railleries which fell upon " the man without ancestors," the "Ascalonite," the "wild beast," who had killed his innocent wife,—a pearl of beauty, a model of honour,—and who had afterwards had his two sons by her strangled, those two princes so sad, so handsome, so brave, whom the people loved for the sake of the Asmonean heroes, their ancestors, and their unfortunate mother.
1 Some have made Zoroaster a disciple of Jeremias; but their times do not correspond; it is more probable that he was a disciple of Daniel.
2 Men are not agreed as to the country of the Magi; some make them come from the interior of Arabia Felix, others from India, which is not at all probable. The best authorities give them Persia for their country, and this opinion has seemed to us founded in truth. The name Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, which are attributed to the Magi, are Babylonian. In fact, Babylon, and after its destruction, Seleueia, situated at a short distance, were the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity. Finally, these cities are to the east of Jerusalem, and in twenty days' march one may travel from the borders of the Euphrates to Bethlehem, Origen, who was learned and well-informed, assures us that the Magi studied astrology. Drexelius ridicules Origen for this very unreasonably; which proves that he was little versed in the history of the East in olden times, where every astronomer was also an astrologer.
3 Strabo, lib. xvii.
4 St. Joan. Chrysost., Serm. 6 in S. Matt.—Chalcidius, a pagan philosopher, who lived at the end of the third century, makes mention of this star, and of the sages of the East whom it conducted to the cradle of Jesus Christ. St. Augustin, the doctor of doctors, speaks thus on this subject: " At his birth, he declared a new star, who, when put to death, darkened the old sun. What was that star which never appeared before among the stars, nor remained to he pointed out afterwards ? What was it but a magnificent tongue of the heavens— to declare the glory of God, to proclaim with unusual brightness the unheard-of parturition of the Virgin."—(Serm. cci., in Epiph. iii.)
5 This cistern, or well, situated on the road to Jerusalem, still bears the name of the Cistern of the three Kings, or of the Star, in memory of this event.
6 Bazubends, antique bracelets of diamonds, turquoises, and pearls, which the satraps wore above the elbow : the King of Persia and his sons still wear the bazubends.—(See Morier, Voyage en Perse et en Armenie.)
7 See Josephus, Ant. Jud., lib. xv. c. 13.
8 The whole of the East at that time believed in astrology; and Philo informs us that the satraps of Persia passed for the first astrologers in the world.
9 Goel (Saviour), one of the names by which the Hebrews designated the Messias.
10 Herod had strictly forbidden the Jews to talk of affairs of state; they could not even meet together in family parties to make great feasts, according to custom. His spies, scattered about Jerusalem* and even over the high roads, immediately arrested those who disobeyed the king's edict; they were placed secretly, and sometimes n open day, in strongholds where they were severely punished.— (Josephus, Antiq. Jud., lib. xv. o. 13.)
11 Josephus, de Bello, lib. v. c. 13.
12 The people were so far from applauding the discovery of this conspiracy, and rejoicing at the safety of the king, that they seized the informer who had disclosed it, tore him in pieces, and had him eaten up by dogs.—(Josephus, Ant. Jud., lib. xv. c. 11.)
13 Herod painted in order to look younger than he was, and had his hair and beard dyed black.—(Ibid., lib. xvi. c. 11.)
14 He often mixed at night, in disguise, with the populace, says Josephus, to know what opinion the people had of him, and he punished without mercy those who did not approve of what he did.— (Josephus, Ant. Jud., lib. xv. c. 13.)