Pagans searched for Christ in Bethlehem
It will surprise many Catholics and other Christians that gentiles, pagans, or Zoroastrian philosophers from what is now Iran or Iraq relentlessly sought the newly born Christ’s a long time ago. Their search and gifts for the Child, led by a big star, became symbols of everyone’s spiritual journey and gift-giving during the holiday season.
This historical fact (hewed from Matthew 2 that speaks of the Magi) resonates with ironies now that the modern world is divided between the haves and the have-no-Christ, the alienated and the divinely reconciled.
Instead of discussing this irony like a Bible scholar or a political analyst citing statements from politicians in the Middle East and the West, Pastor Sunil Stephens, 61, an Indian resident of Manila for 31 years (he studied divinity at the Asian Theological Seminary in 1986-89), produced a poem titled “The Journey of the Magi, Asia’s Search for Christ.”
It sounds like a lecture! But: “It’s worth one’s time,” says Stephens, professor at Alliance Graduate School since 2005. A fellowship of Chinese, Filipino, Indian and other Southeast Asian students at Quezon City Sports Club has been reading Stephens’ poem since Dec. 1, like a play (with a narrator, and Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchor as characters). Members of Church Café (artists, journalists, scholars and skeptics) also read the poem, its content explained by Stephens during an early Christmas party at his home.
In the poem, Balthazar explains the travelers’ search: “We were not content with the starlight/ We wanted the source of the light.” “As Orientals or as Asians, we did not know shortcuts to spirituality” (an aside on “spoiled Christians,” says Stephens).
Gaspar boasts: “We were pagan sages, we were serious/ They (in Jerusalem) were God’s priests, they were complacent/ The light that shone in the east/ Was not seen in Jerusalem by any priest/ They were in the dark about the birth of Christ/ It was from us pagans that the Holy City heard the good news/ It was through us that God revealed to God’s people/ that God was in Christ/ Because of us, they searched the scriptures for further light.
“King Herod did not know/ The ministers did not know/ The courtiers did not know/ The chief priests did not know/ The scribes did not know/ They searched the scriptures/ It pointed to Bethlehem/ The king told us/ Find the child/ Inform me/ We left Jerusalem alone/ None of the priests and scribes joined us in our search.”
What was revealed to the pagans? Melchor says: “There was birth/ There was death/ There was death: that was evident/ There was also death/ Death to our old ways/ Old illusions/ Old vanities/ Old idols/ Some thought we were kings/ But we had found our king.”
Explaining the poem’s thrust, Stephens says: “I am fascinated by Christianity’s interrelation with Asian churches’ history, Asian religions, Asian theology, and Asian trends.” The traveling Zoroastrians must have read Daniel 9:24-27 about the Messiah’s birth, and Numbers 24:17 about Balam (from the town of Pethor off Euphrates River near Persia), who prophesied a star coming out of Jacob. And the origin of the old travelers? They were Medeans who came to power after Babylonian rule. When the Persians took over the Medeans, the latter became advisers of kings, astrologers, philosophers, and wide readers, says Stephens.
“God is longing to be incarnated,” says Stephens on his poem’s inner theme, which does not divert from his obvious theme of pagans discovering Christ. “The incarnation of human and the divine was prefigured by Greek mythology, the Romans, and 10 documented incarnations in India, which underline the concept of avatar. They have prepared Christ becoming flesh.”
“I am no poet like T.S. Eliot,” admits Stephens, referring to the British poet (1888-1965) whose conversion to Anglo-Catholicism led him to write poems with religious allusions, including “The Journey of the Magi” (1927).
Eliot concludes his travelers’ search of Christ in this way: “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?” Back home, the traveler says he is “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation/ With an alien people clutching their gods.”
It is a portrayal of man who believes in the incarnation—but without the magical leap of faith, some critics say. For Stephens, the pagans know that leap—with Asians’ arduous spirituality. There is much guessing how this will play out in the modern political arena.
Barbara Mae Dacanay heads Gulf News Manila.
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