The Magicians

The Christmas Nativity story is marked by visits from wise men [Matt 2:1], or Magi [plural for Magus Latin, or Magos Greek] from the East.

It is commonly believed to be wise men to be Zoroastrians from Persia.  The Prophet Zoroaster [c. 1500 BC]  was the founder of the Magi and “inventor” of both astrology and magic and the word, magi still survives in the modern-day words “magic ” and “magician”.

Harry Potter eat your heart out.

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Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic faith that developed in Persia from 1500 BC while Abrahamic monotheism can be dated to 2000BC. Zoroastrians, while astrologers and alchemists, were opposed to sorcery and their beliefs were marked by strong polarities between good and evil, dark and light and Messianism – a belief that a king will rise to reconcile the cosmic battle between light and dark.

The wise men of the East feature in biblical accounts of Daniel. Daniel served under two Chaldean-Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belteshazzar, and one Medo-Persian Darius. Daniel predicted the rise of a kingdom which would be greater than other kingdoms and take over the world.

 

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Old Testament scripture that dates after the exile is noted to be affected by Zoroastrianism as it takes on strong imagery of dark and light, motifs of angels and demons, heaven and hell. These polarities of Second Temple Judaism can be contrasted to the strong monotheism of traditional Judaism. In the Torah, the first five books, the Book of Job and other earlier writings,  God was ONE and held polarities of justice and mercy together. God [not an evil force] was to be feared as judge, Satan was more “accuser” than demon, bringing cases before YHWH for his judgement.  Death was a grey waste called Sheol, and the afterlife was a form of reincarnation.

Zoroastrians used their astrology to follow the signs to where the infant Christ lived with his parents. Their arrival signified the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the nations coming to see the light of Israel, bringing their tribute and fealty [Ps 72:11, Isa 60:11]. The arrival of the Magi to honour the birth of Christ is perhaps thus a look back to how Judaism was nuanced by the monotheism and messianism of the Zoroastrians. Or perhaps it is a look forward to the Age to come when all those who seek God in spirit and in truth, acknowledged the Messiah, the whole point of and culmination of scripture.

 

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Rogue Male Attends Christmas Carols

After a brief hiatus it is with pleasure that Damien Shalley blogs again for Bear Skin, this time with something a little more personal. A Christmas reflection.

Rogue Male Attends Christmas Carols

by Damien R. Shalley, Esq.

for N.W.

Last Saturday I awoke at 3:47 pm feeling mighty used, having spent the previous day and night attempting to prove that a person can be sustained exclusively on fermented malt beverages. (Fun fact: You can, until you lose consciousness). I can usually manage to stumble out of bed by the crack of noon after a big session on the stagger juice, so even for me this was a grand anti-achievement. I popped a Berocca and some Nurofen Plus and attempted to reintegrate my synapses. I had a vague feeling that I was supposed to be doing something on this day, but my addled cerebellum wouldn’t reveal this secret knowledge. So I moved to my default position whilst in this condition – oblivious ignorance – whilst wallowing in self-pity and emitting quiet whimpering noises.

I hit the shower for an extended water therapy session. I revived enough to realise that I had forgotten to take off my socks. (Oh well, they needed a wash). The water was soothing but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was required to be doing something else other than rehydrating whilst curled up in the foetal position on tiles of my shower bay. On the plus side, my socks were now very clean. I lay there until the throbbing in my head had reduced to a low-key drumming. The dullness in my corpus abated to the extent that I could reach for and open the shampoo bottle without risking heart failure. Small mercies. I continued to absorb the H2O for an extended period and eventually relieved my H2 woe. I exited the shower on my hands and knees and blow-dried my socks whilst still wearing them. (Incidentally, this resulted in remarkably fluffy and comfortable socks – I would recommend this technique to the hung over). Now I was ready to face the day, despite the fact that the day was pretty much over.

At this point my resolute nausea was weirdly challenged by a desire to eat something. Food, I thought, might provide a nice counterbalance to the strange percolations that were occurring in my stomach – an organ only marginally less abused than my liver. Experts recommend eating a healthy, low-fat meal after a hangover to help one’s body cleanse toxins. Phooey! I hadn’t listened to expert advice about how to avoid a hangover, so I wasn’t going to listen to expert advice about how to treat a hangover. (I know this is circular logic, but hey, I had a hangover!) I proceeded to fix myself two fried eggs on toast. With greasy bacon. And a lot of sauce. Tempting fate much? I am not a chef and there are two things that always ring true about my culinary exploits: 1. Nothing cooked by me tastes any good, and; 2. I’m not kidding. My meal was average at best but at least it quietened my bubbling gastric system. In the back of my mind I still felt that I had forgotten something. I retired to my favourite leather recliner to give serious consideration to this dilemma – and promptly fell asleep. Food always makes me sleepy, and in my weakened state I entered the land of nod without resistance. Blissful slumber ensued – for a while.

Two loud beeps broke though the arc of snoozy zzz’s emanating from my reclining body. That’d be my phone, I thought as I returned from unconscious oblivion. I had previously forgotten to check this device because I was preoccupied with my own misery and because I secretly resented the way it ruined my naps. After fumbling with the insidious creation, a text message from a friend revealed itself. “Don’t forget Carols tonight at church, biggest night of the year! Be there by 6:00!

Uh-oh, Christmas Carols! That is what I had forgotten to remember! Caroling is not supposed to send chills of fear through one’s body but my friend is pretty demanding and if I was late to these festivities there’d be a passive-aggressive price a pay. Luckily for me it was only around 4:30 pm, right? Wrong! It was 5:25pm, I’d been away with the pixies (or Christmas elves in this case) for an hour! I grabbed some previously worn “going out” clothes from the floor of my bedroom which were crinklier than my Grandma (luckily I didn’t to find socks – serendipity!) and splashed on a lot more cologne than I should have to improve my freshness factor. And so, smelling like an accident in a Lynx factory, I proceeded to my destination. Almost.

My trusty car picked this critical moment not to start. Arrggghhhh! I popped the bonnet and found, well, an engine. I don’t know too much about cars, but my old man always told me to check your points and battery connections first if the vehicle is playing up. I retrieved my trusty red toolbox from the boot and proceed to fumble around. I tightened a loose battery connection and the engine turned over. Dad was right about something for once! A Christmas miracle! I threw my trusty red toolbox onto the front passenger seat and hightailed it to the church.

I usually drive defensively but sometimes the best defence is a good offense, so I ducked and weaved through indecisive motorists noodling through the local streets until I hit the motorway. Unnecessarily singing “Get Your Motor Running” by Steppenwolf, I made great time until, a few minutes into my run, I felt an unmistakeable urge. Maybe it was the previous dodgem’ car antics that had upset my stomach, maybe it was the hangover treatment of eggs and bacon, maybe I was worried about disappointing my friend – but man, did I have to throw up! Oh no! The urge was overwhelming and there was no time to pull over. The only thing my addled brain could think about was not vomiting on my clothes. Nobody wants to attend carols looking and smelling like the local alcoholic hobo. There was only one thing I could do. I grabbed my toolbox, flipped the latch and, well – hurled into it. Recalling Jim Morrison’s warning to “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel”, I managed to time my paroxysms to unpleasant intervals in between rapid-fire scans of the road ahead. The expulsions, amazingly, resulted in no unpleasant residues on my clothes. The same cannot be said for my toolbox. I threw it back on the passenger seat and pressed onward at speed.

I arrived at the church with a few minutes to spare but couldn’t find a park in the car park. Or in a side street. Or on a side road. The entire population of northern Brisbane was apparently attending this event. So I ventured down to a dimly lit local park. This less-than salubrious locale didn’t even have a name like most parks do, just a sign that read “No Dumping”. I pulled onto the grass in what may not have been a breach of 21 local by-laws and jumped out of my seat. Some shifty-looking teenagers were loitering around a bench on the other side of the park. I told myself that all teenagers look shifty, abandoned my car to the will of the universe for the evening and entered into a slow jog (very slow considering my condition) towards the place of worship and tunes. Halfway to the venue, I remembered that I hadn’t locked my car. Too late, too bad, I thought and continued toward salvation.

Whist negotiating a swampy miasma at the edge of the park which appeared to exist in order to prevent the unworthy (i.e. me) from entering the church – and muddying my boots in the process – I received another text message. “You idiot, where are you?” It was 6:02pm. Assuming that the word “idiot” was a term of endearment, I responded. “Nearly there, a minute away”. I was expecting to be congratulated for this achievement. I was disappointed. “You know I’m the sound tech for tonight, right? Busy all night, I won’t see you at all. Should have got here earlier, idiot!” (Idiot again. Must really like me).   In fairness, this probably was not new information. I did have a vague recollection of something like this being mentioned previously, but I had forgotten. What can I say, I drink. I extracted myself from the swamp and continued forward to the sing-along, arriving muddied, befuddled and just in time to be late. The celebration had begun. Music wafted over my sweating brow and passed through the air above the fetid mash I had just escaped.

I grabbed a song book and infiltrated the crowd in a vain attempt to show my friend that I had arrived against great odds. I was immediately struck by the fact that nobody in sight was alone. The place was packed with families, couples young and old, extended collections of relatives, groups of excited children performing boogie-woogie moves. I was truly a rogue male in this milieu.   Rogue males are not welcome in places with multitudes of children, and can often find themselves subject to unwelcome scrutiny from “proper” adults. (We are welcome at dinner parties though, and regularly get set up with somebody’s unmarried female cousin who has worked in the Bureau of Statistics or some such fascinating entity for the last twelve years whist being treated intermittently for spastic colon). My move towards front of stage was thwarted by a large and particularly enthusiastic assemblage of primary school-aged children dressed as elves. (I would later learn that they were to be part of the night’s stage entertainment. For a while there I thought I was experiencing DT’s from all the booze). I took this as a sign and implemented Plan B – strategic retreat.

The rear of the arena was actually not such a bad location to spend an evening. I have a singing voice roughly akin to an angry walrus and the term “tone deaf” was invented specifically for me. So it was quite refreshing to find an area of respite, both for myself and fellow participants who didn’t have to listen to my tonal dissonance. I staked out some territory near a sound mixing desk (no sign of my friend here either) and got my groove on.

The first carol of the evening had been a traditional religious song, nicely performed by the church choir and a live band. The next performance however, was a dance routine by some hip youngsters tightly choreographed to a funky Justin Bieber tune. I was not aware that anything Justin Bieber has ever produced constituted a carol. (I was not aware that anything Justin Bieber has ever produced constituted music). I made a mental note that I secretly hated this song. The kids in the audience were enraptured. What do I know?

“Hear the Angels Voices” arrived next, with lyrics projected via digital teletron. The words “Fall to your knees” precede the chorus lyric of this carol – I was ready to do just that at this stage because my hangover was telling me that I really needed some fluids. At this point I contemplated an excursion to the nearest 7-11 store for a litre of Gatorade, but my exit strategy was thwarted by an assemblage of performers behind me who were preparing to run toward the stage costumed as the “ghosts of Christmas past”. I felt that I was in grave danger of becoming a ghost at this point so poorly did I feel, but I stuck it out and, unbelievably, started to feel really uplifted by the performances. The songs were (mostly) familiar – Bieber be damned – and the tradition of gathering together to celebrate something as joyous as Christmas is beautiful. This is collective memory writ large, and what a beautiful memory to have. The whole occasion had an aspect to it that – dare I say it – was holy.

The night’s official festivities went on for two hours. Carols and songs, both old and new, lifted spirits. The band was tight, the lighting was spectacular, the performers were elegant and the assembled families (plus one rogue male) were entertained. This really is the way to experience Christmas.

After the event I finally caught up with my friend. We laughed together about my dumb exploits prior to arrival and made plans to meet up again soon. Christmas wishes were exchanged, and I then beat a retreat to retrieve my vehicle and get home to bed (and painkillers). As I approached my car, I noticed that something didn’t look quite right. As I got closer, I could see that the mirror on the driver’s side of the vehicle had been torn off. It was lying on the ground beside the car. “Damn kids, I thought. They’ve vandalised my car!” The driver’s side window was missing too. Parts of the shattered remnants, still held together by tinting film, were sitting on the driver’s seat. I opened the UNLOCKED door (guys, you didn’t have to break in) and surveyed the scene. They had stolen, along with some other small items, my trusty red toolbox! I don’t know whether it was the joy of the night’s carols, the Christmas spirit in general, or my hangover forcing me to prioritise my concerns, but I just couldn’t help laughing out loud. “Boy are they going to get a surprise when they open that!”

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If you would like to guest blog for Bear Skin please message me on jennifer@bearskin.org

A Christmas Carol

scrooge

Who doesn’t love a good story of Scrooge at Christmas? The miserly man who hates the holiday cheer, is reformed through a series of rather confronting dreams and wakes to a new lease on life, love and generosity.

However, on closer inspection,  the story may have sinister 19th century overtones.  Ebenezer [Hebrew for “help of God”] Scrooge,  owns a counting house and is a notoriously miserly business man. He has no love for Christmas, and hates the very sentiment. However, three spirits appear to him in dreams and show him Christmases past and present, recounting life events including his own future death. This is enough to inspire in him a love of the Christmas and good cheer to all.

Does anyone else notice something suspicious about a cold hearted, money hungry, eccentric old man, with a Jewish name in London, chief of a counting house who hates the very idea of Christian holiday ? Faced with his own imminent cold grave, his own selfishness is illuminated, he repents and becomes joyful and generous.

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The story moves from a tale of human redemption to something dated by racial overtones. While the story of restoration through a realisation of Christ’s birth is joyful, unfortunately Dickens tale errs to moralism – Scrooge is Jewish and selfish and should become Christian and generous.  I’m not the only one who thinks so:

http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/dailyrft/2010/12/dickens_christmas_carol_anti-s.php

If Christians are to tell stories of redemption, we are better to take a biblical [and indeed Hebrew] perspective of how the narrative plays out. The protagonist is always the common one, always flawed. One does not become a follower of Christ by accepting the holidays and charitable ways – but by radically being confronted by the grace given.