Yule Blog 2011-12: How Real Is The Meaning?
Published on: January 3, 2012
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  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    As an adolescent some fifty years ago I deeply appreciated a Christmas presentation at (IIRC) the Hayden Planetarium in which they examined the “Christmas Star.”

    They explained axial precession and how it had been discovered by Hipparchos 150 years before Christ. Whereupon they regressed the night sky some 2000 years. There followed a discussion of how when the original Anno Domini had been established it overlooked an emperor, thereby messing up the timeline for Herod and the rest, such that Christ had to have been born no later than about 6 BC.

    After that they went through celestial events from 10 BC to 6 BC to understand what could have been the “star.” No known comets or supernovae. There was, however, a reasonably close conjunction between — going from an old memory here — Jupiter and Venus in the spring of 7 BC in the constellation Gemini, which would have been visible in the west for a few hours after sunset.

    In that era conjunctions were a big deal, and Gemini was known as the House of the Hebrews. Astronomers/astrologers of the era would have taken that to mean something important was happening in Israel.

    As a side-note, May is generally lambing season in that part of the world, and it was the only time of the year shepherds would be out in the fields constantly … abiding with their sheep, if you will.

    All in all, it was a superb interpretive program, as witnessed by the fact that half a century later I still remember it.

  • Kris

    “Why’d you choose such a backward time
    And such a strange land?
    If you’d come today
    You could have reached the whole nation;
    Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

    For some not entirely accessible mythology, how about them Maya?

  • Anthony

    “…center point in human culture as a whole: products of a particular time and place, but comprehensible to all.” The aforementioned reflects simplicity and logic of truth as universally interpreted – via gospels (recognize the light and acknowledge its glow…thence you will fine “how real is the meaning”).

    Thanks, WRM.

  • Toni

    Thank you for explaining all this in a way we can all understand. God gave you a gift, well, many of them, and we are all your beneficiaries.

  • Frank Arden


    I find it interesting Mead’s essay should be remind you of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

    I was in high school when I first heard this rock-opera. I was disturbed by it at first. I was only seventeen, an Episcopalian student in a Roman Catholic military school run by Benedictine priests and monks, and was an aspiring young Christian who attended weekly meetings of Young Life, a multi-denominational Christian assemblage of high school students.

    Ultimately, I bought the album and became convinced Lloyd-Webber’s soundtrack was one of the best I ever would hear. But, I was haunted by Rice’s words.

    I still am.

    Before Jesus reaches superstar status, Judas betrays him. Judas is seen as a dirty, sweaty, dusty, filthy, guilty traitor who laments his crime before he commits suicide by hanging himself, saying: “I have been spattered with innocent blood. I shall be dragged through the slime and the mud!”

    “Damned for all time.”

    And yet, just before Jesus dies on the cross, the chorus asks,“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
    Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
    Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

    This is where Judas returns to the opera, bathed and dressed in white, apparently forgiven, resurrected even, to ask:

    “Every time I look at you I don’t understand,
    Why you let the things you did get so out of hand, You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned,

    “Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?

    ”If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

    ”Don’t you get me wrong…Only want to know…”

    We all “only want to know,” and to know with certainty. I was moved that Mead hit this high note of uncertainty about the life of Jesus, for Jesus is a matter of faith. If the story, indeed the history, of Jesus is quaint to us today, it was no less so for those who came before us. At it’s most essential and uncomplicated, God’s New Covenant promises forgiveness by faith alone.

    This is hard for us moderns (and post-moderns), immersed in rationality and scientific proof, to contemplate the good life through pure faith. So we turn, instead, to humanism (a moral, yet self-absorbed, life of good works without faith), moralism (a Calvinist construct of strict behavior), atheism (the guilty struggle of sincere unbelievers), elitism (“ I don’t need it”), intellectual relativism (“What makes Christianity better?”), agnosticism (“Who cares?”), to outright, fearless hatred of God (poor Bill Mahr).

    Judas’ question in the penultimate movement of Jesus Christ Superstar is a rational one and appeals to the modern mind. In essence, Judas asks, “Why do we need faith?”

    The answer to his question might be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    Remember, young Hamlet has just returned from school to mourn his father’s (the Royal Dane) untimely death. His young mother is already married to his uncle, Claudius, who has ascended to the Danish Throne. The whole affair doesn’t pass the smell test; at least to Hamlet who muses, “Something is rotten in Denmark.”

    While brooding one night on the parapets of Elsinore Castle, his father’s ghost appears to him and tells Hamlet in detail how Claudius murdered him for the power of his reign and the passion his mother’s bed. Hamlet vows to avenge his father.

    The only way to do this is to kill Claudius and to this end Hamlet sets out so to do. But he begins to rationalize. He doubts. He fakes insanity. Then he devises an ingenious plan to have a band of traveling actors recreate his father’s murder wherein, “I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

    Midway through the play, Claudius is visibly shaken and leaves the audience looking for a place for his heart to vomit his guilt. He seeks refuge in the chapel, followed by the stealthy Hamlet, where Claudius falls on his knees, confesses and begs forgiveness from God. All the while, Hamlet stands, unknown, behind him with a sword ready to put Claudius out of his agony and out of our, and Hamlet’s, misery.

    Yet, in spite of all this proof, Hamlet doubts himself again. He turns his anger to his mother for her “insemened bed” and mistakenly kills the sly lawyer, the cynical, conniving chancellor Polonius. His father’s ghost appears again to warn Hamlet of his “almost blunted purpose.”

    Nothing was ever resolved. Everything ultimately ended in tragedy for the single reason Hamlet lacked faith to act when he could have.

    Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a lesson about secular faith. The play never rises above that, but to the extent that faith matters, spiritual faith matters much, much more.
    In spite oh his father’s ghost; indeed, in spite of his own intuition and judgment, Hamlet would not act.

    Thankfully, everyday life does not find poor Hamlet’s dilemma. But, it does require judgment and decision. We must act. Often we must do something even if it turns out to be the wrong thing.

    Faith in God is the only thing of spiritual substance we have to guide us because all faith lies at the center of the whole universe of action.

  • Walter Sobchak

    As I pointed out on the 12/26 essay, these stories are profitably read as midrash. The star shining on the birth of Jesus connects his story to Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:

    [12] And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me,
    [13] `If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the LORD, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the LORD speaks, that will I speak’?
    [14] And now, behold, I am going to my people; come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.”
    [15] And he took up his discourse, and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Be’or, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
    [16] the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes uncovered:
    [17] I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh:
    a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.
    [18] Edom shall be dispossessed, Se’ir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed, while Israel does valiantly.

  • Rick Graham

    I don’t think it would be asking too much for Jesus to have had mentioned that slavery is a bad thing. Maybe throw in a subtle lesson on germ theory. Think of the years of suffering he could have saved.

    … and in hind sight it might make his story more ‘believable’.

  • “Shockingly, that matters a great deal to God.”

    God told you that himself personally, did he?

    The alternative and simpler explanation, of course, it’s that Jesus wasn’t actually the “son of god”.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ptet: you presumably believe that Mickey Mouse is a fictional character, but you capitalize his name in normal usage. Interesting that you choose not to do so with God. Have a happy new year!

  • Chet

    From where I sit, it seems pretty certain that Something Big happened at the first Christmas and that history somehow turned on its hinges.

    I don’t follow, I guess. If you’re referring to the birth of Jesus, that’s believed to have happened in the spring, assuming you believe that it happened at all (and there’s no reason to believe that it did); “history” only “turned on its hinges” if you believe that “history” is only something that happens in the West. “Pretty certain” is a strange way to describe something for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

    You have a curious and blinkered perspective, where it seems like you’re completely unwilling to admit that the world’s other religions really do have earnest followers who devoutly believe the truth of those competing traditions. Why, uniquely, did “history hinge” in 6 BC but not in 563 BC or 570 AD, when those two men have had a profoundly larger effect on the world, objectively, than the first?

  • @walter

    It was nothing personal. Just like any reasonable notion of an all-encompasing universal “being”.

    And really, is that all you’ve got? That I have something against your “god”? Do you have something against “allah” or the indy gods? Or do you just believe that they do not exist?

    To stay on topic, I laud the OP for his teachings on brotherly love. He just seems to assume the truth of his beliefs without any notion that he might be wrong.

    Orthodox versions of Christianity teach that non-Christians will burn eternally in hell. The literal words of Jesus in the Bible are very clear on the point. If those words aren’t to be taken literally, isn’t it strange to insist the Bible isn’t all metaphor?

  • (Oops “hindu”. [Darn] auto correct…)

  • Apologies… Walter is the OP. My inerrance filter seems to be busted.

  • “Shockingly, that matters a great deal to God”

    —Walter Russell Meade

    “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge.”


    Perhaps Mr. Meade and all the other “pundits” who advocated for the Iraq War could honor God by shaving their heads moving into a monastery where their wretched, murderous counsel could not infect the population at large.

    Richard W. Bray

  • zee

    Look back 20,000 years ago before these pathetic patriarchical religions that provide children and women for the pleasure of men. We’re equal dude. When women have 50% of the power we won’t be wasting our precious resources on war.

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