CHAPTER XII - THE ADORATION OF THE WISE MEN
The Magi saw it, each from a different part of his own country and came together that they might discuss the mysterious sign which had appeared in the heavens.
These men possessed all the human learning which was at that time spread throughout the world. There is no doubt that each, impelled by some subtle influence, wished to place the results of his acquired knowledge and science at the feet of Him whose advent was to revolutionize the earth, to replace the carnal by the spiritual, to set moral force above physical force.
Mysterious were the words that were exchanged between them and the secrets shared by them in common. All experienced astonishment, mingled with joy and admiration, when they saw that the grand issue of all their study revolved about the expectation of the Messias. In Jerusalem alone could they expect to learn of His coming, so toward Jerusalem they would wend their way.
"The time approaches—the time is here!" they exclaimed.
Assembling their attendants, and mounting their camels, the Magi began their journey of unknown duration. Arriving at the Plain of Sennaar, they followed the banks of the Euphrates, passed into Syria across scorching deserts, and stopped at Palmyra, the town of Solomon, where they remained a day to salute this Queen of the desert. They saw Damascus the superb, arrived at Mount Hermon, and descended into the plain of Upper Galilee. From this place they took the main road that leads to Jerusalem, across the shady valleys, and the rocks of Judea studded with tamarind-trees and green oaks, leaving, on the left, the distant mountains of Galaad and on the right the more distant heights of Garizim and Hebal, and the perfidious Sichem, which is situated between their arid and naked sides.
In each of the towns where the Magi stopped, they found the people busily engaged. In one place with the harvest, in another with warlike declarations or treaties of peace; there with taxes, or with a levy of men and money, which it was necessary to make in order to please Caesar, that earthly deity whose smallest wish caused them to tremble. In all things, everywhere, the most trifling interests of earth superseded the thoughts of heaven, and the great Expectation, the blessed Hope with which the world was filled, was occasionally called to remembrance only by those whose occupations afforded them ample leisure. The Magi had studied man, and knew his natural propensities—but it was most probable that, learned and scientific as they were, they did not comprehend the individual in his afflictions, toils, and misery. They attributed to indifference what was but the necessary consequence of the labor and struggles which men experience in endeavoring to provide for their daily wants.
The Magi at last reached the great city of Jerusalem and perceived, by the silvery rays of the moon, the embattled towers and convex domes of the city of the kings of Israel. Then they alighted from their beasts and held council together. After some discussion the eldest Wise Man said: 4 4 We are approaching, no doubt, the end of our journey. When the gates of the city are opened we will question the inhabitants we meet. Doubtless they will be able to tell us where we can find the King.",
Preparing their tents, they camped that night close to the gates, and watched beneath the vault of heaven, in the vast expanses of which, though still a glorious sight, no extraordinary star was visible. In the morning the gates were opened. The Magi had ordered that the first who should pass out should be brought to their tents—which, being done, they demanded of them where their new King might be found.
No one could answer this question. Others observed, contemptuously:
"King? We have no King! The friend of Caesar is not our friend. He is a foreigner, who not only oppresses us, but treats our religious ceremonies with disdain. His impious mouth never opens but to utter blasphemy or issue some sanguinary order."
"Our fathers suffered slavery," rejoined others, "but they were far from Sion. They mourned, recalling the country from which they were separated, the beauty of which was engraved upon their hearts. It was ever before them, pictured as they had known it. But we, who are actually its inhabitants, do not recognize it. Have mercy, O God, upon Thy people!"
Great indeed, was the affliction of Israel, for many who were interrogated by the Magi answered in this sad and hopeless strain. Herod, in the interior of his palace, knew well the discontent and repining which surrounded him. He was vigilant in watchfulness. No event was allowed to pass unnoticed. His spies kept him faithfully informed of everything that transpired. It was, therefore, communicated to him that some strangers had arrived at one of the gates of the city during the night, and that, judging from their appearance and language, they had come from a far distance. To sum up, they had inquired for a King, newly-born, whom they styled the Salvation of Israel. At these words Herod was much troubled, and ordered that the strangers be brought before him.
The Magi obeyed the summons, and, with their numerous attendants, came to the palace of David, and into the presence of the tetrarch.
"We are seeking a King," said the chief of the Magi, "Him whom the most celebrated of the wise men has foretold, saying, 'A new star shall arise at His birth." That star we have seen in the East. Therefore we, being at Jerusalem, the city of kings, thought, O Prince, that the Saviour promised to our fathers might be within these walls. If we are mistaken, undeceive us."
Upon this, Herod became speechless. His heart shook within him at such unexpected tidings, and he immediately summoned the Doctors of the Law that he might consult them. Even the name of this King which the Hebrews expected, and daily implored heaven to send, made him tremble with fear. His power was insecure; he knew how the people hated him, and was fully sensible that a spark might enkindle a raging conflagration in which he and his evil ambitions would be consumed—yes, that even the very slightest appearance of success would be sufficient to create a terrific revolt.
The Doctors of the Law assembled. They declared unanimously that the Messias promised to the earth was to be born at Bethlehem of Juda—which, oh that account, although an unimportant village, was called "happy among all the towns of Israel." Herod tried to conceal the fear with which these words inspired him, and spoke graciously to his guests.
"Continue your journey to Bethlehem, O wisest of men!" he said. "I ask for but one favor. Should you find this King—this Messias, as you call Him— should you find Him, I pray you to bring me word, that I also may come and adore Him."
And ordering the Magi to be escorted with great honors to their tents at the city gates, he bade them farewell. The Magi returned, accompanied by the officers of the king, and made ready for their departure. They said nothing, even to one another. The terrible look of the prince, and his words, mild as they sounded, seemed fraught with such evil meaning that grave apprehension had taken root in their minds.
Scarcely, however, had the officers of Herod left them when, to their intense joy, they saw the blessed star which they had seen in the east, shining before them. Saluting it eagerly, and following where it led, they traveled along the exterior walls of the city, and thence on to the road that led to Bethlehem. They paid respect to the tree of the prophet Elias, the mountains, the cheerful hills of Rama, and the distant desert celebrated by the remembrance of Ruth and Boaz.
They were nearing the town, when, to their astonishment they perceived that the star had stopped and now rested above a huge rock. Leaving their animals to the care of their servants, they ascended, on foot, a rough and difficult road, which brought them to the grotto.
The scene presented to their view was one to cause them to stand silent in amazement.
A young woman was seated in the straw, a little child resting on her knees. Both were more than ordinarily beautiful, but no special mark distinguished them. The Law had been fulfilled, the circumcision accomplished—the Son of God had submitted Himself to the common lot, rendering Himself in every way like other children. He lay before them in poverty and humiliation. Another child, the Precursor, tried to approach Him. An elderly woman, smiling, caressed the little wavering hands of the struggling babe. Two men were conversing near the entrance of the grotto, one elderly, one middle-aged, both grave and calm. The whole scene was primitive, simple. Grandeur had no place in it.
The Magi were confounded. What was this? What had they expected to find? What had they come to seek, from the remotest parts of the world? A King? And how could they recognize the One who had been so long the object of their search?
But the elder Wise Man, he who had seen and understood the misery of human greatness, he who had seen vileness clad in purple and fine linen, advanced now, and knelt in silence before this Child, worshiping Him.
And the Child turned His gaze upon them.
Ah, that look of God! Half-veiled as it was by infancy and humanity, yet it pierced the souls of these men, at once subduing them. They threw themselves upon their knees, lost in an ecstasy of wonder, love, adoration. And then, as if to reward them for their faith, the eternal hymn fell on their ears, celestial voices chanting the heavenly hosannas.
"Glory to God in the highest!" (St. Luke ii, 14.)
"O Light eternal!" exclaimed the Egyptian Wise Man. "Source of science, hope, and love, God, the Supreme Being! Time without end, uncreated Intelligence, who art, who wast, who shalt be! God, three times holy, powerful, and terrible, receive our homage and humble worship! Thou dost send Thy Son to regenerate the world, to propagate the light, of which it stands in such sore need! To admit man to the law of perfection, which governs him without his knowledge! Before Him the clouds will be dissipated, and the whole world will understand how small a number comprehended the mystery of the Fall, and the Redemption by the ordeal of suffering.
"Blessed art Thou, the Beginning and End of all things! My soul will cease to live solitary in a world of thoughts and sentiments which other men can not understand. My mind will no longer bear the burden. At Thy feet, holy Child, I cast all my earthly knowledge, Thou who comest to complete all knowledge. I desire to know, I desire to understand, no more. I have forgotten all in the presence of Thy divine infancy. For all time will I love Thee, and Thee alone. Thou alone art entitled to my love!"
The old Magi, who had experienced the nothingness of all things, had yet attained the love of Him who understands all things, and without whom all things are indeed nothingness. Tears coursed down his pale cheeks; but his heart became reanimated, as though a heavenly dew had fallen upon its parched surface. And when he had finished, the Wise Men placed the presents they had brought at the feet of the holy Child.
One offered Him gold, as to a King; another frankincense, as to a God. But he who had examined all so minutely, and who probably foresaw the future, being at the same time moved to tears, presented Him with myrrh, having mournful reference, it might be, to His death and burial. Once more prostrating themselves, with their faces in the dust, they withdrew. For three days they worshiped the holy Child, and departed to their own country, to declare to those who could understand them the mysteries of a God made man to save and redeem the world.
They did not journey through Jerusalem, for they were warned in a dream not to revisit Herod. After their departure Elizabeth and Zachary also took leave of the Holy Family, returning to their home. The infant John seemed to realize their intent. With his tiny hands he clung to the manger in which Jesus rested, as if he did not wish to leave Him. Did this child, purified before his birth by the Saviour, already recognize Him of whom he was one day to say: "Behold the Lamb of God!"—He whom he had preceded into life, and was to precede into death as the morning star precedes the sun. Many, many years were to elapse ere these two, blessed servant and divine Master, met again.