The compound where I worked before retirement is situated on a high mountain ridge in the western edge of the kingdom. In the distance on a clear day one can see the great gulf that is fed from the north by the Tigris and the Euphrates. Beyond the gulf to the west is the vast desert that stretches to the edge of Egypt, our ancestral enemy.
The view most significant for our work was that of the night skies. As scientists we studied the constellations and assigned meaning to their movements, reporting to the King.
The memory that stays forever in my mind began with a report that two of the greatest planets, Saturn and Jupiter, seemed to be converging in the constellation we call Pisces or The Fish. Their light began to grow brighter until they came to dominate the heavens, so much so that a report was made.
It had an immediate response. We were to select a small group of our staff to travel toward the west to continue to study the phenomenon. We would be given an escort as far as Dura Europos on the Euphrates where we would cross the river to join the Roman highway system. From there we would have to make our own decisions.
Our orders were to look for any signs of political or military disturbance on the eastern edge of the Roman empire or in the vicinity of Egypt, both of which could be a threat to our Persian interests. In case we would find ourselves in any diplomatic encounters we were directed to take with us some symbolic gifts that would suitably impress our hosts.
The memory I have treasured all my life is not the journey but its destination.
All went well until we arrived in southern Palestine. It’s puppet king kept power only with the support of the Roman occupiers. By the time we paid our respects to him we knew that the regime was utterly corrupt and cordially hated by the local people.
Night had fallen as we left Herod. A young man approached us saying that someone wished to meet with us. It was a difficult decision to make because we knew that it could well be a trap. We questioned the youth carefully before deciding to accept the invitation.
I remember that we approached the village under a starlit sky. The house we were welcomed into was that of the village rabbi. As we watched in astonishment he removed a section of the earthen floor and beckoned us down a simple ladder. A whole living area had been hollowed out and furnished. A young woman sat holding a child, I would estimate about two years old. Her husband stood behind them, he somewhat older than she.
I don’t know why or how but I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that we had found what we had been sent to discover. I have been at the shrines of countless gods but nothing has ever addressed me with the power of that moment. No language was exchanged because we had no language in common, nor was language necessary. All I can say is that in the presence of an ineffable Majesty we found ourselves on our knees.
It was Melchior who remembered the gifts. We had encountered no powerful rulers worthy of them. Here in this lamp lit room with its earthen walls we could only hope that they would be found worthy of this Child. The rabbi beckoned us to leave.
It was he who told us everything. We found that he shared with us the common language of the east, Aramaic. Quietly he told us of the boy’s birth, how the skies had sung. We told him of our sightings among the planets. He was not surprised. He told us too of their great fear of Herod’s death squads. For two years he and many others had protected the child, moving the family from house to house, sometimes hiding them in the vast cave system in the walls of the escarpment near the village.
But it seemed that time was running out. Herod’s fear and paranoia made him persistent. The family needed to be taken away. At this point the rabbi asked for our protection for them. He felt our coming had been providential. Would we at least escort them to the border with Egypt.?
There was never a moment’s doubt. Preparations had already been made for such an opportunity as this. Long before dawn we had moved away from the vast bulk of Herod’s fortress and were heading west for the coastal road – the Way of the Sea. From the Egyptian border we would eventually turn east toward the Dead Sea, then north on the other great road – the Way of the Kings – thus pursuing our long journey home.
At some time on that journey we agreed on our report. We had found no kings plotting against Persia, no armies marching from Egypt. Only we three colleagues would ever know that a King greater than all Kings was now growing to manhood on the earth.