The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G. Part 34.

Chapter 12
The day after these nocturnal wanderings was a day of mourning and punishments: none were spared. The executioner, after cutting off the heads of the highest, fell upon the lowest of the rabble. Thus on every side vows were made against the life of the prince; and each time that the report of his death was circulated, whether by chance or design, in the distant provinces, the people, greedily seizing the treacherous bait which flattered their hatred, hastened to light up bonfires in every direction, which Herod extinguished with blood.

Amidst these elements of civil discord,—when a fever of insurrection was sullenly working its way in the army, and revolt, like a ripe fruit, seemed to invite the hand of the seditious,—strangers of high bearing arrive at Jerusalem, who inquire without any mystery or circumlocution, for a new-born King of the Jews, whose star they have seen. Herod is astonished; he anxiously calls up his recollections; the predictions fatal to his dynasty which the Pharisees cause to be circulated—the oracles of the ancient seers—to which he has hitherto lent but a distracted and secondary attention, come to his remembrance. This warrior Messias, this prophet sprung from David, who is to carry his victorious ensigns from west to east, begins to give him vague disquietude; it is not the God who makes the aged king so full of thought, it is the prince. The more he thinks upon it, the more this mysterious event seems to him connected with one vast conspiracy tending to raise up a secret and rival power upon the ruins of his own. What then! did he pour out like water the illustrious blood of the Maccabees, without any concern for the beating hearts of his wife and children; did he crush beneath the iron wheels of his despotism all that offered any resistance; lose his soul, his honour, the rest of his nights, in which his bleeding victims troubled his dreams 1 . . . . and all this to what purpose ? —to smoothen the way to the throne for the family of David 2 ....This sceptre so dearly purchased,—this sceptre, still wet with the blood of his own relatives, will be then no more than a reed, sterile and accursed, which the blast of death shall break over his tomb ! .... He will have passed, like the meteor of a stormy night, over this land, whose ancient glory will brilliantly revive after him! .... And this people, who hated him with a hatred so strong, so deadly, so furious, that even his favours could do nothing towards assuaging it, how will they surround with their love and sympathy the offspring of their ancient kings ! And this last thought fell as bitter as wormwood upon the dark and desolate heart of the aged monarch; for in the midst of his acts of violence, he felt the want of being loved, a strange want certainly, but perfectly real in this exceptional being, who seemed made up of contrasts, and who had employed very noble qualities in the service of the most absorbing and most cruel passion which could lay waste the human soul—ambition !

"Be this child prince of the land or prophet of God," said Herod, after a pause, " he must die; ... . and die he shall, even though I were sure to extinguish with this feeble spark all the glories which our seers dream of for future times. Athalia, that clever woman, who knew how to reign, forgot only one infant in his cradle in the massacre of the royal family of Judah. That child deprived her of her throne and her life. I will take care to forget nothing. But where is this new-born king of the Jews concealed, who is proclaimed by the stars, and whom these insolent satraps come to seek at the very gates of my palace ? Can he be in reality the Shiloh foretold by Jacob ? These are perhaps mere reveries of the astrologers ? No matter, we must make sure." A few hours after, the doctors of the law and the chief priests, assembled in council under the presidency of Herod, heard this question, which appeared to them strange in the mouth of such a prince: " Do you know in what place the Messias should be born ? "

The answer, which was not expected, was unanimous: "In Bethlehem of Juda. " And the ancients of Israel, delighted to make the friend of the Romans uneasy, did not fail to add that, as the last of the weeks of Daniel was near its end, the time for the Messias was drawing near. These indications, little calculated to give security, were not sufficient for Herod, who wanted to know where to strike the blow: he resolved to interrogate the Magi, and to know, if possible, the precise time of the birth of the child, calculated by that of the appearance of the star. Too clever a politician to grant a public audience to the sages of Iran, which would have given consistency to a rumour which it was his interest to stifle, the king sent for them privately, and pressed them with questions as to the time of the star's appearing to them. "He inquires," says St. John Chrysostom, " not the time of the child, but of the star, lying in wait for his prey with great diligence." Informed of what he wished to know, the man of blood dismissed the strangers in an affable and gracious manner. " Go," said he, " to Bethlehem, and search diligently after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore him."

Now the Magi, like all superior men, like all the sons of meditation and science, were good, sincere, and little inclined to suspect evil. They understood arbitrary conduct and cruelty in a prince, they did not understand falsehood ; for the first thing that the kings of Persia taught their children was to tell the truth. Accordingly they believed the false words of the Idumean, and passing again beneath the elegant porticoes of this palace, which vied in magnificence with those of the great king, but which had not in the midst of its bronzes and arcades the golden bell of the suppliants, 3 they left the Betzetha, 4 struck their tents, and traversed a second time the holy city, to go to the presumed birthplace of the Messias. As they passed by the walls of the new amphitheatre, enriched with trophies,—the extraordinary decoration of which was an inexhaustible subject of sarcasms to the Pharisees,—they met King Herod, surrounded by a forest of Thracian and German lances, who was going in the direction of Jericho. 5

The Persians left Jerusalem by the gate of Damascus; then taking the left, they entered upon valleys  intersected with hills, which they were obliged to climb. They were about an hour's journey from the capital of Judea, and were watering their camels at a cistern, when a brilliant light appeared directly over them, and descended rapidly to them, like a falling star. " The star ! our star !" cried out the slaves, transported with joy. " The star!" repeated their masters, with the same rapture ; and being certain this time that they had entered on the right way, they resumed their journey with fresh ardour.

They were about to enter the city of David, when the star, lowering itself towards the south, stopped all at once over a cave, which had the appearance of being a rustic stable, and descending as low as possible in the air, rested, as it were, over the head of the infant God. The sight of this motionless star,—the softest rays of which fell in a luminous sheaf upon this cave hollowed out of the rock,—filled the Magi with great faith, and their faith indeed needed to be great to acknowledge the King Messias, in an infant destitute of everything, lodged in a poor place, laid in a manger, and whose mother, though beautiful and full of every grace, was evidently of a very obscure condition.

God, who would make the Jews ashamed of the hardness of their hearts, by setting before them the religious eagerness and the docile faith of infidels, permitted that the extraordinary humiliation of the Holy Family should not shake the firm belief of the Magi.

The worshippers of the sun, the Gentiles, whom the cross came to save, as well as the children of promise, made their way into the sorry abode of Christ with as much veneration as in their temples built over subterranean fires, where starry spheres revolved. 6 According to the custom of their people, they put some of the dust of that poor threshold on their foreheads, and after taking off their rich sandals, they adored the new-born Infant, as every son of the East at that time adored his gods and his masters. Then opening caskets of Odoriferous wood, which contained the presents intended for the Messias, they took out of them most pure gold, found in the environs of Ninive the Great, and perfumes which were exchanged for fruits and pearls with the Arabs of the Yemen. These mysterious gifts had nothing carnal about them, like the offerings of the Jews. The cradle of Him who came to abolish the sacrifices of the synagogue was not to be sprinkled with blood ; therefore the Magi did not sacrifice to him lambs without spot, nor white heifers; they presented him gold, as to a prince of the earth, myrrh, and frankincense, as to a God; 7 then, touching the earth with their foreheads before Mary, whom they found fair "as the moon, and humble as the flower of nenuphar" they invoked upon her the benedictions of God, and wished that " the hand of woe might never reach her."

This was the last scene of splendour in which the Blessed Virgin bore a part. The first period of her life, like a sweet dream of Ginnistan, had passed beneath roofs of cedar and gold, in the midst of sacred perfumes, melodious chants, the sound of lyres and harps; the second, full of wonders and mysteries, had placed her in correspondence with the inhabitants of heaven and the princes of Asia; the third was about to open under other auspices: it was the turn of persecutions, troubles, and indescribable sorrows.

And now the Magi, whom nothing retained in Judea, prepared to leave Bethlehem. They proposed, according to their promise, to go and find the king in his palace of Jericho, to tell him where the Messias was; but the angel of the Lord admonished them, in a dream, of the dark designs of that perfidious prince, and intimated to them the order to change their route. The children of Ormuzd returned their thanks to the " Master of the sun and of the morning star," gave the honour of this nocturnal revelation to their good genius, 8 and meriting by their perfect docility the gift of faith which they received later on, 9 instead of going along the sterile and dangerous borders of the accursed lake which reflects in its heavy and stagnant waters the shadows of the reprobate cities, they turned the heads of their camels towards the Great Sea, and imagined themselves in the plains planted with date-trees 10 and covered with roses, bathed by the Euphrates and the Bend-Emyr, while they were traversing the fine regions of Syria.

1 Josephus, Ant. Jud., lib. v. c. 13.

2 We wonder at the alarm caused to Herod by an offshoot of the family of David; yet it was not only Herod that persecuted that noble family, out of hatred for its ancient rights and glorious expectations. Eusebius, after Hegesippus, relates that, after the conquest of Jerusalem, Vespasian commanded the posterity of David to be sought out and destroyed. Under Trajan, the persecution still continued. Finally, Domitian had two descendants of that illustrious race brought to Rome, whose grandfather was the apostle St Jude. The emperor, after interrogating them, learning that they possessed no more than thirty-nine acres of land, which they cultivated with their own hands, bent them back to their own country, being made easy as to their ambition by their poverty.

3 The kings of Persia administered justice in a manner quite patriarchal. They had above their heads a golden bell, and to this bell was attached a chain, the end of which hung outside of the palace. Every time that the bell rung, the officers of the prince left his apartments, and introduced before the great king the petitioners, who demanded justice of the prince himself, and the king rendered it to them on the spot with equity.—(Antar, translated from the Arabic by Terrick Hamilton.)

4 The quarter called Betzetha, or the new town, which Herod had joined to Jerusalem, was situated to the north of the temple: it included the lower pool, the probatical pool, and the palace of Herod.

5 We have followed the authors who maintain that Herod departed for Jericho, where he was for some time sick, at the time when the Magi journeyed to Bethlehem; this agrees every way with the account of the gospel; for if Herod had been at Jerusalem at the time when the Persians returned, they would probably have seen him before the admonition of the angel, who did not inform them of the designs of the king till the first night. The sickness of Herod, taking off his attention from the Magi and the infant, left the former at liberty to return peaceably into their country, and the Holy Family time to return by the road to Nazareth.

6 These spheres, composed of circles of gold, cut out like those of our armillary spheres, revolve brilliantly at the rising of the sun. They are still seen at Oulam, where the Ghebers have a temple.— (Rabbi Benjamin.)

7 Those verses of Juvencus, the most ancient of Christian poets whose works have come down to us, on the presents of the kingly Magi, have been justly praised:—
"Aurum, thus, myrrham, regique, Deoque, hominique Dona ferunt. ..."

8 Of Ormuzd, in Zend, ahuro-mazdao (the very learned king), and of Ahriman, in Zend, ahyro-maingus (the intelligent merchant), according to the Persian mythology, were born the good and evil genii to whom are attributed different functions in the universe, whether for the diffusion of good or the propagation of evil. One of these good genii, named Serosch, went round the earth every night to watch for the security of the servants of Ormuzd.—(See the Amschaspand-Named, and The Book of Kings of Firdousi.)

9 Very ancient authors affirm that the Magi received baptism from St. Thomas; it is thought that they suffered martyrdom in India, where they preached the gospel.

10 "The palm-trees of Babylonia," says Diodorus Siculus, "bear exquisite dates; they are half a foot long, some yellow, others red, and others of a purple colour, so that they are no less agreeable to the sight than to the taste. The trunk of the tree is of an astonishing height, and everywhere alike straight and smooth; but the head, or tuft, is not of the same form in all. Some palm-trees spread out their branches in a circle, and the fruit of some projects in bunches from the bark, which is open about midway; others hear their branches on one side only, and their weight bending them down towards the ground, gives them the figure of a lamp suspended; others, in fine, divide their branches into two portions, and let them fall to the right and to the left in perfect symmetry." (Diodorus, b. ii.) The following is the description of the banks of the Euphrates, by a poet anterior to Mahomet: " They saw populous towns, plains abounding in flowing streams, date-trees, and warbling birds, and sweet smelling flowers; and the country appeared like a blessing to enliven the sorrowing heart; and the camels were grazing and straying about the land; and they were of various colours, like the flowers of a garden."—(Antar, translated from the Arabic, by Terrick Hamilton.) —For the fields and gardens of roses so common in ancient Persia, see Firdousi, The Book of Kings.