Paul Greenberg: A word from the wise

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Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

-- From the Gospel according to Matthew

I understand they make little replicas of us now, not idols to worship, you understand, like the old household gods, but just little ornaments. To hang on trees, or maybe put on their lawns. It's quite a comedown for a high priest of Zoroaster, He Who Thus Spake, but it's fitting enough in its own curious way. Ours was only a bit part in their curious story to begin with, and every day that passes here amidst the soaring towers and hanging gardens of the great palace, so far away from the humble land where it all happened, I feel a little smaller myself. As if I had missed something of significance in those mean surroundings, unlikely as it would seem, my friend, for I am a careful observer, I assure you. Everyone at court will attest to it. No one makes a better first-hand report or judicious audit.

The trip there, and our brief sojourn in that little appendage on an Asian littoral of Rome's great empire, remains vivid in my mind -- though it is of little moment now that I have returned to advanced Eastern Civilization and have important things to engage my interest. Even if I were to regale my fellow courtiers with the tale, they would listen with only feigned interest, secretly amused no doubt that a sophisticated theologian and statesman should take such auguries seriously.

Imagine me, confidant and stargazer to Epiphanes himself, thinking there might be something to learn from so backward and superstitious a people only a few generations removed from being nomads and brigands in the desert. A barbaric clan whose only claim to fame, as I understood it, was their once being slaves -- slaves! mind you -- of the Egyptians until they were freed by this mysterious, invisible god of theirs whom no one has ever seen and, I suspect, never will. Yet they cling to his arcane rites and strange rules with a stubbornness that defies belief, or perhaps epitomizes it.

Another glass of this vintage? Still a little unseasoned, I fear, and much too dry, but its insouciance may amuse. It helps pass the time, and I must confess that time drags between diplomatic missions now that I'm back from that brief hiatus in the mysterious, always inscrutable West.

Oh, yes, I was talking about those little graven images they make of us. Now that the years have intervened, I feel smaller myself. Despite all the customary homage I am paid at court, mainly by petitioners hoping I will present their petitions to His Beneficence, or even appoint them to some sinecure or other, preferably one having to do with the collection of royal revenue, a portion of which always seems to stick to them. That much hasn't changed over the years, even if everything else has since I made that strange trip.

The petitioners at court, bowing and scraping in the accustomed manner, address me by grandiloquent titles and are careful to observe proper etiquette, I am happy to say. They speak and move ceremoniously, as we do all things here in the East--as opposed to the brusque ways of the barbrous West.

We three kings of Orient old, as they still refer to us, spared no expense or camel as we proceeded on a journey whose reason was quite beyond us then and remains so even now. Though I have thought and thought about it ever since. I haven't heard from Caspar and Melchior in ages, my boon companions when we were roughing it on the road. Would you believe it -- not a halfway decent caravansary between Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the cuisine after Samarra ... inedible. Unleavened bread and an occasional piece of mutton.

I'm sure my old friends would agree that reason had nothing to do with that fool's journey, an inner compulsion everything. Or maybe a compulsion from without, for on our own we would never have taken it into our heads to go looking for this King of the Jews, a most curious and insignificant title. Comfortable as our lives were, why we should have dropped everything and struck out for some obscure province of the Romans' empire, and the most rebellious one at that, still escapes me.

I have been on far more exalted missions since -- to the court of the Grand Khan, even unto far Cathay, and have seen Pharaohs and Fakirs, watched men and snakes charmed, yet no journey has so stayed with me. Even now the compulsion that sent me there returns from time to time, like my arthritis, especially this time of year, with an added twinge in the spring planting season. As though I might have missed something while I was there, improbable as it seems. I included every detail in my report to His Sublimity. Yet I am haunted by the memory, as if some specter were chasing me forever through the corridors and arcades of time, never quitting my trail, as if he were after my very soul.

All I can say is that it all must have had something to do with that star. I've never seen anything as bright. Night was suddenly day. As if the whole world had been changed and would never go back to what it was. Maybe some soothsayer or psychiatrist -- I can never tell the difference -- can explain what got into us. Have you ever heard of starlight having such a powerful effect? But we were powerless to resist. Where it sent us, we had to go. Surely it would direct us to a great palace full of placid pools and irresistible sirens. No such luck. We wound up in some anonymous hovel. And were happy to leave the strange light of the place, as if a spell had been cast on it.

In the end we made haste to return to the comfortable dimness, where we knew our way. Yet it occurs to me even now that no one condemns us to the dark, that it is of our own choosing. And we prefer it. What an odd fancy. Yet a certain slant of that light stays with me. Always beckoning. My doctor says it's just psychosomatic. But this delusion, this impression that unto us this day a king is born in Bethlehem, will not fade. It seems particularly strong today.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)

(c) 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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