Now that Thanksgiving is past and along with it the busiest shopping day of the year, it strikes me as the right moment to reflect a little on the Christmas story.
The story of Jesus’ birth has long been a sore point in the argument between faith and science. Miracles are happening all over the place; three (or is it two?) wise men (or are they fire priests of the Zoroastrian faith?) arrive unannounced and worship the newborn child; and King Herod is frightened enough by the prognostications to order the murder of every infant in Nazareth (a theme played out in many stories circulating at the time, not least the birth of Moses). Who can really believe that the accounts contained in the gospels are anything but invented (if beautiful) stories intended to win over the sympathies of the Jewish people?
On the other hand, there is a curious tenderness to these stories, a voice that appears no where else in the New Testament and which is marked by a concern with astrology characteristic of the ancient Semitic peoples.
& then there is the fact that one of the infancy gospels (an overlooked genre in its own right), the Arabic Infancy Gospel, was written in Aramaic (its title notwithstanding). Here we have one of the grails of modern scholarly research, an extant gospel written in Aramaic!
& then there is the even more remarkable fact that the AIG reports that Zoroaster himself predicted the birth of Jesus (and also adds other interesting details to the Nativity). By the way, just who was Zoroaster? Does anyone really know? That he was the founder of the religion that bears his name is agreed by all, but nothing much else: the date of his life and teaching and the substance of his instruction are uncertain. Many of the writings attributed to him have disappeared.
But, as important as those questions are, let’s return to the birth. I’m going to propose, tentatively of course, that the materials belonging to the Nativity and Jesus’ childhood comprise a special category of writings, quite ancient and composed in Aramaic. And the reason that they were written (and told) in Aramaic is that they were intended for an audience that had little contact with the outside world & its sophisticated language, Greek: Jewish and Samaritan *women*.
There is a curious lack of men in these materials (especially if we overlook Joseph’s presence–he plays almost no role in the stories). The themes are of particular (one almost might say exclusive) interest to women: childbearing and the rearing of young children. And Jesus is introduced in the most appealing way possible: as an infant.
In short, the Nativity and other infancy materials constitute a Gospel for Women. That they contain a historical layer of fact gathered by and shared among women certainly seems plausible. And other considerations point to historical elements in the Christmas story. But more on that later. RT
copyright, 2010, the Rag Tree
Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears:
Did he smile His work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
illustration src: WikiCommons; artist: Franz Marc
You could be a bug
snug in a rug
dreaming of Li Po
–the Rag Tree
Photo Src: Wikipedia; Photo: Agricultural Research Service
A couple of days ago, I came across the photo of an exceptionally lovely young lady on one of the WP blogs and was inspired to write this verse:
Such perishing beauty!
Would that I were 20 years younger
and clutched a trembling rose
in my hand…
photo: Nino Barbieri, WikiCommons
Need to get your mind off too much turkey, the drive back, a looming workday? This photo from Mars Global Surveyor might help.
at the bottom of the mind
lies a stone
a place of earth and rain
blowing through the
we lie in a silence
the stone remembers
the first hand
the hip smooth
with its socket, scattering
our feet across the world.
and our hearts knotted,
knock-knock, knock-knock of our time
chipping loose the fragment, the
thought, razor-edged &
the stone is rising, split and veined
fleshy and not an apple
involute and not a mind, but many
wet strokes of thought
blood in the mouth & tongue
and fire, stonestruck.
leaf-flakes, handloom, and heddle
parure of pins & beaded blood—
What else? The shining, cut eye.
—the Rag Tree
Note: The title refers to H. Habilis, the first ancestor species to exhibit significant brain expansion over the chimpanzee (650 cc. vs. 400 cc. for a chimp). Habilis means “handy,” “dexterous” in Latin.
Image: G. de Mortillet, 1903; src. WikiCommons
What is obvious (especially about poetry) sometimes needs explanation and reflection:
1. Because I need to spend time with someone.
2. Because you need to spend time with someone.
3. Because poetry is love. Both are presence, the willing and joyful passage of time with someone who is special.
4. Because all serious problems in life are problems in poetry. I mean it. Mostly we spend time thinking about problems that can be negotiated: what does the beautiful red hat cost? what do you want to do for thanksgiving? what’s the best kind of work for me? But poetry is about stuff that we care about: our lives, art, beauty, truth. This is the stuff that can’t be negotiated, only experienced.
5. Because what is intimate can only be expressed in poetry. Life can be wonderful; it can be very ugly. Paradoxically, both extremes are hard to share. There’s lot of mediocre love poetry out there; we need a Pablo Neruda to transcribe an ecstatic experience. And of course no one wants to share their pain; ordinarily, this is what drives people away. We need an Aeschylus or a Poe to take us to the roots of horror and pity. Or sometimes, primal scream will do the trick. And always, we have to reveal something about ourselves.
6. Because sometimes we need to remind ourselves what it means to be a person. Poetry is the closest we’re going to get to the whole enchilada: we’re not dealing with a salesperson, the landlord, the boss, or a family member who would rather be somewhere else. We’re dealing with someone who is trying hard to be understood. We’re going to get more than surface or a rerun of something we’re only too familiar with.
7. Because people who live without beauty are ill. Beauty isn’t a luxury; it’s one of the things we are in the world for. People who lack it therefore soon develop symptoms: depression, anxiety, paranoia. Beauty reminds us of that primal truth: life is good. Come to think of it, life is beyond good: we hunger for it.
8. Because people are beautiful. All of us. Look for the spark, the sweetness, always there under the crud.
9. Because reading poetry helps make us our most beautiful selves. It’s all there: experience, knowledge, learning, reflection.
10. Because, like going to the doctor (if he or she is any good), we almost always feel better afterwards. Poetry is life.
Art: Tree of Life, Gustav Klimt; Src: WikiCommons