We’ll be hearing Luke 2:1–14 during the Christmas Mass During the Night. The first half leads with A-list VIPs. The second starts with folks at the other end of society’s ladder.
I’ll be talking about VIPs, shepherds and status. Also remembering what the shepherds heard, and why it still matters.
“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.”
Magi and Farmers
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s not a new idea:
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
“The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus; via Plato’s “Cratylus,” Diogenes Laërtius in “Lives of the Philosophers” Book IX, section 8; one of many translations)
My guess is that Heraclitus paraphrased something he’d heard, which in turn had been passed along through uncounted generations. Change happens. Pretty much anyone who pays attention will notice that.
Folks fretting over new tech and new ideas is, likely enough, as old as humanity. (June 1, 2018; March 26, 2018)
Some folks, that is. Others have been making life miserable for testy traditionalists — or contributing to the common good — by finding new solutions to old problems.
My guess is that at least a few folks warned that growing crops instead of hunting and gathering was a bad idea. Agriculture caught on anyway.
Farmers learned that supporting specialists who could accurately predict seasons was a good idea. Several millennia later, that’s still among astronomy’s functions. (January 8, 2017)
“Magi from the east” — we hear about them in Matthew 2:1, Epiphany’s Gospel — weren’t astronomers. Not the sort we’ve had for the last few centuries. They weren’t like today’s astrologers either. (September 29, 2017; June 23, 2017)
There’s nobody quite like them, or Rome’s emperor, today.
“Magi” is my language’s version of the Avestan word “magâunô,” via Old Persian, Greek and Latin.
Avestan was an important religious language when Darius was following a ‘don’t bug me, I won’t bug you’ policy toward different religions. That started with the Achaemenid Empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great.1
Shepherds and Almost-Golden Ages
(From Fredarch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Niniveh’s Mashki Gate, reconstructed. Across the river from Mosul.)
Magâunô and the Achaemenid Empire are long since “one with Nineveh and Tyre.”
Some preserve a tradition that began long before our Lord’s birth. Or Sargon of Akkad’s, for that matter.
Shepherding started when somebody decided that small bovine critters were useful, and decided to keep a herd or two on hand. We think it was about a dozen millennia back, near the Mediterranean’s east end.
Herding sheep was a long-accepted tradition a few millennia later, when folks started storing data on clay tablets. Sumerians even had a god of shepherds, Dumuzid. The name was Tammuz in Ezekiel 8:14.2
The Axial Age was in progress then, upsetting apple carts at what was probably an alarming rate. (April 15, 2018)
We’ve had a few moderately stable eras since then, like when Shoshenq I and Psamtik I were running Egypt.
Parts of the Han Dynasty were good times too.
And, probably, the Maurya Empire under Ashoka.
The good times didn’t last. Neither did the bad times.
Ashoka died around the time King Zhuangxiang of Qin ruled land between the upper Wei and Yangtze Rivers. Ashoka’s empire lasted another 45 years, more or less.
Sima Yan became the Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wu around the time Roman Senators were trying to solve their problems by assassinating troublemakers like Tiberius Gracchus.
The Roman Republic’s leadership then hailed Tiberius Gracchus as a hero and went back to business as usual. Republican Rome’s problems got worse.
Decades later, another Roman politico threatened the status quo.
A few anxious Senators, seeing his policies and influence as a threat, defended the Republic by killing him.
That, eventually, set off the Final War of the Roman Republic.
The Pax Romana began when Augustus sorted out Republican Rome’s mess.
The next two centuries were arguably closer to a Golden Age than anything we’ve had since. Seen in retrospect, at any rate. At the time, they probably didn’t seem quite so blissful.3
Maybe, a few millennia from now, someone will look back on those idyllic centuries after the Enlightenment — when an educated and rational populace chose the wisest of their number to work for the good of all.
They won’t be entirely wrong.
Overly-selective in their choice of memories, perhaps, but no less accurate than folks who insist on seeing a dark lining in every silver cloud.
(From Kaaveh Ahangar, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The Cyrus Cylinder, in British Museum Room 55 / Mesopotamia 1500–539.)
I might be more worried about the destruction of all that is fair and noble in this great nation, if I knew less about humanity’s continuing story.
And didn’t remember my own ‘good old days,’ when angsty op-eds said television and the telephone were ruining America’s youth.
Times, and imagined bogeymen, change.
But not much.
These days it’s social media and the ‘other’ political party causing moral decay, decadence and deplorable stuff like that. (October 22, 2017; August 11, 2017)
On the other hand, I think Plato’s Socrates, as portrayed in “Phaedrus,” had a point. Athenian civilization faced a threat worse than any military menace: a deceptively appealing new information tech, writing.
A disturbing number of Athenians thought Egypt’s upgrade of Mesopotamian cuneiform would help them absorb more knowledge.
Plato’s Socrates warned that reading would lead to ignorance and folly.
“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality….”
(Socrates, in Plato’s “Phaedrus;” Translated by Benjamin Jowett, via Gutenberg.org)
Two dozen centuries later, I see evidence that Plato’s Socrates was right. Some folks apparently read a lot and know very little.
I could say that’s because digital media replaced printed books. Or shows what happens when we abandon hand-lettered and bound manuscripts.
Or maybe the issue isn’t our tech. I suspect that some of Aesop’s neighbors had memorized his fables, Homer’s epic poems — and stopped there.
I figure having facts is one thing. Thinking about them is another, and not necessarily the same as understanding what they mean.
Memorization can be useful. So, I think, is knowing how to use a good index. Or how to make one, when necessary. Research skills also help. So does being willing to use any or all of those abilities.
I’d probably be much better at rote memorization, if I hadn’t learned to read. On the other hand, I almost certainly wouldn’t know about 5th century BC Athenian future shock — if Plato hadn’t written it into a play.
Athenians and others didn’t heed Plato’s dramatic warning. Including, apparently, Plato.
Writing caught on.
So did other technologies.
Cuneiform and hieroglyphs led to Proto-Sinaitic and Cyrillic scripts, and the Latin alphabet my cultural forebears modified for their language.
The pace picked up about five centuries back, with movable type. Destabilizing tech like steam engines, data networks, robots and social media followed. The last three items hit after my youth.
I like living in “the future.” Some don’t.
Using ‘after this, therefore because of this’ reasoning — it sounds cooler in Latin, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” — I could say that learning to read and write doomed Athenian democracy. But I won’t.
Athenian good times ended, assorted empires and kingdoms rose and fell, and sheep remained an important part of life. Some families still see their herds as a measure of their wealth.4
It’s been two millennia since that first Christmas. Times have changed. Again. Still.
Roman, Parthian and Kushan empires flourished and faded. Europeans re-discovered ancient Greek philosophers, learned that Aristotle wasn’t right about everything, and established new empires.
There’s lively debate — several, actually — over what’s happened since Columbus and da Gama, and whose fault it was. I’m not sure that playing the blame game is useful, and that’s another topic.
What’s more certain is that a global war started in 1914.
Most folks see two wars, World Wars I and II, during the next few decades. I’ve suggested calling conflicts from 1914 to 1945 the ‘Colonial War.’ (November 10, 2017)
Many of us survived, and began rebuilding our civilizations.
A remarkable number of leaders decided that trying something new was a good idea.
We may be developing a viable alternative to ancient empire-collapse-rebuild cycles. (April 15, 2018; November 5, 2017)
After so much change, what’s the point in remembering what happened two thousand years ago in one of Rome’s eastern provinces?
Our tech and cultures change.
Human nature doesn’t, not that I can see.
We’re still creatures with a physical body and a soul.
We can decide to help or hurt each other, use our brains or follow our whims. (January 15, 2017)
The house I live in isn’t just like those my ancestors had, a millennium back. The laws I deal with aren’t just like theirs, or Republican Rome’s, or Hammurabi’s. (February 5, 2017; September 25, 2016)
But they’re not all that different. Some things, like theft, are still bad ideas. Good ideas haven’t changed, either. I’ll get back to that.
Shepherds in Roman Judea had a vital role in society, one with low pay and lower status. They didn’t own sheep. Their job was looking after another person’s herd.
The closest we come to their rung on society’s ladder might be folks who work in turkey barns and poultry plants. Or maybe a factory’s cleaning crew and night watchman.
Let’s imagine folks like Luke’s shepherds, in some American town.
It’s just another night shift. The cleaning crew is at work on the shop floor. The night watchman is doing his rounds.
Then someone’s standing there, on the shop floor; apparently lit up by Klieg lights.
He’s obviously not part of the staff. Probably not even from around here. Make that obviously not.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Give the shepherds credit. Afraid or not, they didn’t run.
They paid attention.
That’s a good thing — since the angel had a message, the best news humanity’s ever had.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“‘Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'”
You know what happened next.5
The shepherds went into Bethlehem, found our Lord in a feeding trough.
It was a bit like finding a couple and their newborn infant behind a motel, using a tool box as a cradle. Not exactly four-star accommodations.
The baby grew up. He said and did things that impressed some and bothered others. Folks in the regional A-list had him tortured and executed.
Then, a few days later, our Lord stopped being dead.
That got Mary of Magdala’s attention. And Simon’s. Thomas caught on, too. Eventually. Then our Lord had a final meeting with the 11, gave them standing orders, and left. (Matthew 28:18–20; John 20:1–18, 24–29; Luke 24:30–43; Acts 1:6–11)
“…Peace to Those on Whom His Favor Rests”
We’ve been passing along what our Lord told the Apostles ever since.
God loves us. All of us. Each of us. And wants to adopt us. (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:3–5; Peter 2:3–4; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1–3, 27–30, 52, 1825, 1996)
Maybe it sounds too good to be true. There is a catch, sort of.
God wants to adopt each of us. But I decide to accept the offer: or refuse it. It’s a choice everyone makes. (John 1:12; Catechism, 154, 1730–1730)
I thought God’s offer makes sense. What you decide is up to you.
That makes me ‘part of the family.’ Which isn’t as nifty as it may sound.
I can’t reasonably expect God’s peace if I say ‘I’m God’s kid’ — and leave it at that.
Acting like I accept the family values is part of the package. (James 2:17–19; Catechism, 1814–1816)
The family values are quite simple. It’s like our Lord said, when an expert asked which commandment was greatest.
I should love God and my neighbors. All my neighbors. Everyone in the world. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:43–44, 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 6:31 10:25–27, 29–37; Catechism, 1789)
“…The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
Two millennia later, it’s still simple. Memorization isn’t my strong suit, but remembering those two point isn’t hard.
Acting like I believe them is incredibly difficult. But they’re still good ideas.
‘Loving my neighbor’ means responding when I see a neighbor in trouble. Doing what I can makes sense. Even if all I can do is pray. (Catechism, 2558–2856)
Recognizing humanity’s “transcendent dignity” makes sense too. It’s in each of us. That doesn’t mean we’re all alike, or that we should be. Individual differences are part of the package. (Catechism, 1929, 1934–1938)
So are qualities like generosity, kindness, sharing and planning for future generations. Make that ‘should be.’ I’m definitely a work-in-progress. (Catechism, 1734, 1803–1832, 1937, 2415, 2419–2442)
Our world is a work in progress, too.
Building a Civilization of Love
Some of us have acted as if loving our neighbors makes sense.
I think a 20th century Pope had a good idea:
“…We must overcome our fear of the future. But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together. The ‘answer’ to that fear is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world. The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))
About 23 years later, We don’t have a “civilization of love.”6
I’d be astonished if we’d cobbled together an international authority that actually worked in such a short time.
Maybe in 23 decades. That’s how long it’s been since revolutions in a few English colonies plunged Europe’s empires into chaos and confusion.
Or started ‘natives’ thinking about freedom and self-government.
Or it could take something like the 23 centuries since Republican Rome destabilized the Mediterranean world.
Or laid foundations for the Pax Romana’s peace and prosperity.
Either way, I’d rather live now than when the Punic Wars were current events. Or when tea-drinking colonists got fed up with the status quo.
On the whole, I like living in today’s world: even though it’s not perfect.
Humanity has an enormous backlog of injustices and unresolved issues.
We also have folks willing to consider working with others: including others with different backgrounds and viewpoints.
Willingness to work together won’t solve all our problems.
But it’s a start. A good start.
I think seeking justice and practicing mercy will be worth the effort. If we keep working at it. And are willing to be patient.
If not we’re not, God won’t make us accept peace.
It’s our decision:
- “Homer, Hegel, History and Hope”
(May 12, 2018)
- “God, Love and Clouds”
(February 25, 2018)
- “‘Do Not be Afraid’”
(January 7, 2018)(Guest post)
- “Taking God Seriously”
(August 20, 2017)
- “Anxiety Optional”
(October 8, 2017)
1 Magi, languages and history:
- How I see it
- “Spiritualism, Attitudes” (June 1, 2018 )
- “Smoke and Monkeys” (February 2, 2018)
4 Sheep, tech and being human:
- How I see it
- “Evolution and Tools” (March 26, 2018)
- “Coming: Robots” (March 16, 2018)
- “Internet Friends, Real People” (March 19, 2017)
5 About Advent and Christmas, mostly:
- USCCB (United States Council of Catholic Bishops)
- General Audience, 05.12.2018
Pope Francis (December 5, 2018)
Pastoral Visit to the Roman Parish of St María Josefa of the Heart of Jesus, Pope St. John Paul II (December 16, 2001)34, 139, 158)
- General Audience, 05.12.2018
6 Working toward a “civilization of love:”
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2302–2317
- “Gaudium et Spes,” Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965)
Extra apostrophe: “peace if I say ‘I’m God’s’ kid’”
The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader
Oops! (The Strange Case of the Abundant Apostrophes) Fixed, and thanks!