Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Epiphany and Esotericism

“Clouds and darkness are round about him.” (Ps. 96)
Little is known about the three Magi who visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The Western tradition names them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Some traditions hold that St. Thomas the Apostle baptized the Magi in his oriental journeys, and that they were made bishops of the Catholic Faith. Western iconography eventually began to depict the Magi as being of three different races (European, Asian, and African) to symbolize the three continents, and of three ages (young, middle aged, and elderly) to symbolize the fullness of man’s life; in this respect, the Magi are a synecdoche of man in his natural, pre-Christian state.

The Magi were likely priests of, or otherwise heavily involved in, the religion of Zarathustra, although in spite of their name they may not have been practitioners of magic or sorcery. Certainly they were astrologers in the sense of astronomical philosophers and speculators. The use of the lights of heavens as signs goes all the way back to the Hebrew creation account (Gen. 1.14), pagans though they were. The details of the ancient Chaldean religions are vague and perhaps tainted by the research of much later speculative philosophers, but it bears superficial similarities to many later heresies like Manichæism.

John Senior describes the aspects of Chaldean astrology in The Way Down and Out: “The cosmology of the sacerdotal schools fits the theological order exactly [That is, of the universe as an emanation of the Divine rather than a creation. –J.], the world in fact being a replica of heaven so that everything which happens in the one is reflected in the other. This accounts for the efficacy of astrology and allied forms of divination and of magic” (11). This doctrine of correspondence between Heaven and Earth, and of Man as an image of the universe, is the popular basis of belief in Man as Divine.

“The heavens declared his justice: and all people saw his glory.” (Ps. 96)
The religions of Babylon and Egypt would eventually be sprinkled with Hindoo doctrines and find a nesting place in Greece (through the Orphic mysteries) and later in Rome (in the rites of Mithras), but would also influence various Neoplatonist movements. In a sense, the world has never been rid of Chaldean errors. The theological dualism of Zarathustra provides a theodicy for the emotional insecure and simple-minded. The implied divinity of Man excuses all manner of vices, especially vainglory and lust, for it makes sexual union into a quasi-divine and magical act.

Still, the stink of Babylon lingers, and likely will until the end of time. Its practitioners call theirs the “esoteric” religion, mocking the public, Catholic religion as “exoteric.” The hidden (“occult”) religion is meant for the enlightened few, the public religion for the simple masses. This pride has diminished over time. Senior notes that the esoteric religion exists in the modern day, but not as the fruits of an unbroken tradition:
Because in the West there has been no “tradition” since the Renaissance, the symbolist doctrine has been in the hands of individuals rather than schools, amateurs rather than professionals; and this has led to a kind of esoteric protestantism, to the formation of individual sects, some wise, many foolish. (xiv)
The conversion of the Magi was not a deathblow to what Dr. Senior would later call the “Perennial Heresy,” but it did open an alternative to the temptation of vain curiosity. What the Magi sought were wisdom and enlightenment, and they were true lovers of wisdom (philo-sophia) in ways that those with itching ears are not. The doctrine of correspondence between Heaven and Earth, of Man holding within himself the Divine, came true in the humble city of Bethlehem of Judea. It came true in a way that the Magi could never have predicted, in a way that they would certainly spend their entire lives attempting to understand.

The esoteric had become exoteric—“the light shineth in darkness.” Lovers of obscurity hate the light and “do not comprehend it,” preferring the darkness of the occult. At best they are alchemists intent on improving their own souls; at worst they are sorcerers and worshippers of angels. The esoteric religion remains to be discovered by men restless and intelligent, like a chunk of arctic ice housing a deadly bacteria long thought to be extinct.

Jesus spoke in parables to darken the eyes and block the ears of grievously sinful men, not to prevent the humble and unlearned from entering in to the Kingdom. Some remain blind and deaf, in spite of the epiphaneia of the Gospel. Some wish to remain unenlightened.

“Light is risen to the just, and joy to the right of heart.” (Ps. 96)


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