Friday, December 17, 2010

Takin' a Barn Break

I haven't forgotten about the Wise Men. They're on their long arduous journey from the far reaches of Parthia to Jerusalem. Meanwhile my research is ongoing, and there will be at least one or two more posts about the Magi before Epiphany - January 6.

Today has been a bleak winter day - and it's not even officially winter yet. The temperature was about 53 degrees this morning and fell steadily all day. This morning I was able to get in some barn time. Time in the barn is therapeutic for me. My life - like everybody else's - is filled with modern appliances, gadgets, computers, etc. These things were unheard of a hundred years ago. But grooming horses, cleaning stalls, and filling hay racks has been going on "since time out of mind," as my grandmother used to say. These kinds of activities serve as a balance to our fast-paced, high tech world.

There was a little biting wind coming out of the north, across the bayou this morning so the big doors on either end of the barn aisle had to stay closed. We usually keep nylon halters on the horses, but we've let them go halterless in the pasture for about two weeks. I thought they might take a dim view of their halters, but all three of them lowered their heads and stood perfectly still while I buckled their halters on.

I tethered them in the aisle, one at a time, next to a rack of hay so they could munch while I groomed them. They're putting on their thick, long winter hair. In the summer they're sleek like satin, but in the winter their coats look like velvet. Grooming horses is satisfying because they don't just tolerate it like a dog or cat does, they seem to enjoy it.

Rocky's long luxurious mane was a tangled mess. A mixture of water and Avon's Skin-So-Soft bath oil makes a good detangler and smells good, too. I sprayed some in Rocky's mane and it didn't take long to get the tangles out.

If the weather is nice and the big doors are open, Fay likes to move around while she's being groomed so she can see what's going on outside. She a nosey little mare. Since the doors were closed today, she wasn't as antsy as she usually is.

Tesoro loves to be brushed between his eyes and under his forelock. He moves his head up and down as I move the brush up and down. He thinks he's helping.

We've had two or three hard freezes this month - unusual for December in Louisiana. Our hard freezes - if we get any at all - usually come in January or February. The grass in the pasture is already brown so we're feeding a lot of hay.

There's no green at all left in the sugar cane fields that were planted in the summer. The freezes have turned everything brown - except for patches of some kind of clover that dot the landscape here and there.

In our mild climate the worst part of winter to me is not so much the cold, it's the bleak brown landscape. They say it's doubtful that Christ was born in December, but I'm glad that's when we celebrate his birth. Winter would be almost too bleak to bear without the cheerfulness of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mysterious Magi - Part Two

I didn't realize what a deep hole I stepped into with my last post about the Magi. The answers to the questions I raised can't be understood without some background. We're going to have to delve into the Biblical history of ancient Israel and some secular history as well. I'll just hit the highlights. If this stuff interests you as much as it does me, you can always get the whole story with all the fascinating details from the Bible and various other sources.

The Old Testament tells us that God had a special relationship with Abraham and promised, among other things, that Abraham would have many descendants. Abraham's grandson was named Jacob at birth, but his name was later changed to Israel. The Bible uses the two names interchangeably, so the "children of Jacob" and the "children of Israel" are the same people. Jacob had twelve sons - the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. I guess if you want to get technical there were thirteen tribes because two of Jacob's grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh (the sons of Joseph) were given the status of sons and are often listed in the Bible in place of Joseph.

In 1020 B.C. or thereabouts these tribes united to form the nation of ancient Israel. They stayed united until 931 B.C. All these people were human just like the rest of us, and they didn't always get along. Who can say that they come from a family that never squabbles? Disagreements among the twelve tribes reached a climax in 931 B.C., and ancient Israel divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel and consisted of ten of the twelve tribes. The southern kingdom was called Judah (or Judea) and consisted of the two remaining tribes.

Now don't think that this dividing up was perfect. There were remnants from the ten tribes - especially from the priestly tribe of Levi - that went with Judah. And there were some remnants of the two tribes who went with the northern kingdom of Israel. After this division, the two tribes of Judah (and associated remnants) were called Jews. The ten tribes were called Israelites. Sometimes they were called Ephraim because Ephraim was a prominent tribe among the ten. Sometimes they were called Joseph (remember Joseph was Ephraim's father), but they were never called Jews.

These two kingdoms coexisted side by side geographically. Sometimes they fought with each other. Sometimes they united and fought together against common enemies. But disaster struck in 722 B.C. The Assyrians - the superpower of the day - conquered Israel (the northern ten tribe kingdom) and began carrying its citizens off as slaves. The Israelites who were able to escape did so and avoided slavery. The Book of Esdras in the Apocrypha tells of a large group who fled to a "far country." (II Esdras 13:40-44)

Flavius Josephus (b. 87 A.D), a Jewish historian writing shortly after the time of Christ, said ". . . the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers." Although Josephus was writing 700+ years after Israel fell to Assyria, apparently the whereabouts of this large remnant of the ten tribes of Israel was known.

Steven M. Collins suggests (in his book Parthia: The Forgotten Ancient Superpower and Its Role in Biblical History) that a multitude of members of the ten tribes settled in what came to be called Parthia at the time of Christ. I don't know about you, but Parthia was little more than a blip on the radar screen of my history education. Nevertheless, it was a powerful rival to the Roman Empire.

Collins suggests that the Magi were probably Parthian leaders/priests of Israelite (ten tribe) descent. This is certainly pausible and would answer the first question I raised in the last post - why did the Magi care about a new King of the Jews? They cared because, after all, the Jews (of the two tribes of Judah) were their long separated kin. And since Partia was located around the Caspian Sea - a long way to the east of Jerusalem - Matthew's describing the Wise Men as "Magi from the east" makes perfect sense, too.

Three questions remain to be answered -
Why was all Jerusalem troubled about the arrival of the Magi?
What exactly was the star that the Magi saw?
Why couldn't King Herod and his officials follow the star just as the Magi did?

to be continued - some plausible answers on the way . . .

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Mysterious Magi - Part One

The Wise Men and I go back a long way. Their role in the Christmas story fascinated me as a child, and it still does. You can be a believing Christian and still have questions.  And I have a few questions about the Wise Men.

Matthew tells us in Chapter 2 that after Jesus was born, Wise Men (or Magi) came from the East inquiring about the new King of the Jews and saying they had "seen his star in the East." And they didn't just want to know who this king was. They said they wanted to worship him.

This prompts my first question. Why did these Wise Men care about a new King of the Jews? If the Jews had been a rich powerful nation at that time, it might make sense. You could say the Wise Men were there to curry favor with the rich and powerful. But at that time the Jews were neither a rich nor a powerful nation. They were oppressed by the rich and powerful Roman Empire.

My next question is - what star in the East? A little more information would be appreciated, but apparently the Magi were men of few words.

Now King Herod appears on the scene - Herod, the puppet king that Rome had placed on the throne to rule over the Jews. The Jews weren't happy about having Herod as king, but they couldn't do anything about it so they got along with Herod as well as they could. When Herod heard that the Magi had arrived and were asking about a new king, "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." (When I was a child I absolutely loved that line - "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." Wonder why? Children are hard to figure out sometimes.)

This leads to another question - why was Herod and "all Jerusalem" troubled? Herod was no doubt worried about losing his job to a new king. But why would all Jerusalem - in other words, the Jews - be troubled? Wouldn't they want to see Herod replaced?

Reading between the lines in Matthew's account, I can imagine Herod and all his government officials being in a frenzy about these strange Magi. Herod swung into action and immediately summoned all the Jewish leaders - the chief priests and scribes - and "demanded of them where Christ should be born."

Herod was an Edomite. The Edomites had been converted to Judaism long before Herod was born so he was familiar with the Jewish religion, although he could hardly be called devout. He has been described as a madman who murdered his own family members, but that's another story.   At any rate, he knew that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries the coming of a Messiah, a King, the Christ. If this king had actually been born, Herod wanted to know where.

This wasn't a hard question for the chief priests and scribes, and they answered promptly that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem for so it had been prophesied. They said that out of Bethlehem "shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel." (Matt 2:6) Now don't you imagine that this really ticked Herod off? In so many words, they were telling him that his days as ruler over them just might be numbered. I'll bet Herod dismissed them quickly with a cool air. He probably didn't even offer them anything to drink.

Next we're told that Herod privately summoned the Magi. I think he did it privately because he didn't want the chief priests and scribes to know that he was the least bit worried about this. After all, even a puppet king has his pride. I imagine one of Herod's CIA agents was sent on this mission to round up the Magi. When the Magi arrived at Herod's court, he asked them when the star appeared.  He asked them when the star appeared!

I don't mean to be contentious, but if that star was the big, bright, unusual thing that tradition has led us to believe it was, you'd think Herod or some of his officials would have noticed it. But no, I get the impression that Herod hasn't even seen the star. This is hard to understand. These ancient people didn't have all the things we have that keep us inside at night - TV, Internet, heat, air-conditioning. They paid a lot more attention to the night sky than we do.

Now Herod shows what a crafty, double-crossing fox he was. He kept his cool and told the Magi to "go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also."

When the Magi left Herod's court, the star was still in the sky to lead them to Bethlehem. And this begs another question. If the Magi could follow the star to Bethlehem, why did Herod need the Magi to come back and tell him where the child was? Why couldn't Herod or some of his CIA agents follow the star just as well?

You know the rest of the story. The Magi traveled on to Bethlehem where they worshipped the child king and gave him valuable gifts. Since they were Wise Men I suspect that they had already figured out that Herod was not to be trusted. But in case they hadn't sized Herod up correctly, the Bible tells us that they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod - and they were instructed to take a different route home.  Good idea.  They probably stayed off the main trade route for fear that Herod would send his henchmen after them.

After a certain amount of time passes, Herod realizes that the Magi are not coming back to tell him exactly where Jesus is. He calculates - from the time of the first appearance of the star - that Jesus couldn't be more than two years old. We're told in Matthew 2:16 that Herod was enraged. The wicked king sent out his agents "and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under . . . " I suppose he slept well that night, thinking that surely Jesus was dead.

Little did Herod know that Joseph and Mary had made good use of the wealth the Magi had brought them by packing up and leaving promptly for Egypt.

to be continued . . . a few plausible answers in the next post.

Monday, December 6, 2010

St. Nicholas Day

I remember being told the legend of St. Nicholas when I was a child - about how he tossed bags of money through the window to the daughters of a poor man so that these girls could get married. It was explained that in those days girls had no hope of getting married unless their father could provide a dowry of money or valuable items. This story was way over my head at the time. Walt Disney's Cinderella was at the drive-in theater, and my family and I had been to see it. The Prince was in love with Cinderella, and he didn't seem to care one little bit that Cinderella was poor. I decided the young men in St. Nicholas' day must have been more greedy than romantic.

What wasn't explained to me as a child was that unmarried girls in St. Nicholas' era often ended up being sold as slaves, living a life of prostitution. Of course, I'm just as glad that wasn't explained to me because I was an innocent child of the 1950's and wouldn't have had a clue what it all meant. And if I had somehow figured it out, it certainly would have put a crimp in my romantic Cinderella ideas.

However, the complete explanation does lead to a greater appreciation of St. Nicholas. Because he was willing to share his wealth, these poor girls had a much brighter future.  According to legend, St. Nicholas was very generous with his wealth and preferred to give anonymously.

I can't help contrasting St. Nicholas' method of practicing charity with our methods today. Anonymous giving seems to be a relic of the past. But wait - how can I possibly know that? Anonymous givers are just that - anonymous - so of course, they wouldn't let me or anybody else know what they're giving. OK, for all I know there are a lot of anonymous givers out there. But that doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of givers who are far from anonymous.

There are wealthy celebrities who give a lot and make sure everybody knows they're giving a lot. They often create foundations and put their own name on it - something like The Mickey Mouse Foundation for Underprivileged Mice. I suppose some might say that when celebrities publicize their giving, they encourage other people to give. There may be some truth to that; but I think it's just as possible that the publicized giving that celebrities do might make a lot of ordinary people feel like they're off the hook. Their attitude might be - if there are so many rich people giving so much, surely nothing is expected of me.

Another thing - I think it's possible that publicizing charity might encourage some people to take advantage of an opportunity to get a handout rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to get a job.

Charity is a good thing.  It really is more blessed to give than to receive.  But I think how we give is important.  Apparently St. Nicholas thought so.  That's why he mounted his horse at night, rode by the poor girls' house and tossed the money bags through the window instead of knocking on the front door and presenting the bags in person.   He took the teaching of Jesus to heart.  What did Jesus say about giving?

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.    Matthew 6:2-4

If you want to know more about St. Nicholas Day and how it's celebrated all over the world, check out this interesting website - St. Nicholas Center

Friday, December 3, 2010

Seasonal Rambling

I've finally accepted it - chaos will reign during the first week of Advent.  There are boxes of decorations all over the living room.  The tree is up and decorated, and the Nativity scene is arranged on the buffet in the dining room; but the wreaths and garlands are still in their boxes along with the Santa collection that will eventually be on the kitchen window sill.  The gifts I ordered online have started to arrive so boxes from Amazon are sitting around here and there, waiting to be inspected and wrapped in Christmas paper. 

As we approach Christmas Day, the chaos gradually disappears.  All the decorations get where they're supposed to be, the gifts get wrapped and find their way under the Christmas tree.  Maybe there's some symbolism here.  Our lives are chaotic when our spirits are far removed from God; but as we approach God, our lives straighten out and become more orderly.  At least that's been my experience.

I always like to read a Christmas novel at this time of year. In spite of all the chaos around here, I managed to finish Christmas at Harrington's by Melody Carlson. The story was as good as the picture on the cover - a pretty young woman in a red coat, peering at a Christmas tree in the window of a department store while snow flakes drift down on the sidewalk. It's an inspiring story about redemption and about picking yourself up and starting over when the circumstances tell you to give up.

I have not even started addressing Christmas cards.  I usually have that done before the first of December.  Maybe my knee surgery has something to do with my being behind schedule this year.  The surgery was in August, but it's just in the last month that I've started to feel like I'm getting back to normal. 

We've received three Christmas cards already.  At least some people have it all together this year.  The first card to arrive was from an Australian pen pal.  There's a beautiful snow scene on the front of the card even though it's summer in Australia.  I guess our down-under friends know that a Christmas card with a beach scene and Santa in a red swim suit would look weird to us.  I need to locate one of those Louisiana Christmas cards to send to Australia - you know, a card that shows Santa's sleigh being pulled by eight alligators.

The second card we received was from a local business, and the third one was from Governor Bobby Jindal.  It's a nice card with a photo of the Governor and his family and a notation that no tax dollars were used in sending these cards out to constituents.  Politicians have to be careful about these things.

I can tell that Teche (the house cat) is annoyed with the Christmas chaos.  Our four foot tree is on his favorite end table - the one by the window where he likes to stretch out.  He has a good view there of the bird feeders in the back yard.  Another favorite spot of his - the coffee table - is littered with boxes.  The striped wing-back chair is full of packing material.  I'm trying to keep the wicker chair clear - that's his favorite napping spot.  If I pile it up, Teche might decide to leave home.

I guess you've noticed that this is a rambling, disjointed post - making it perfectly appropriate for the first week in Advent.