Thoughts for Lent — 3

EVERY NOW AND again, I find myself having a difference of opinion with some of my fellow-Catholics over what constitutes “love”.

Without wishing to judge their ability to understand the basics of their faith, it often seems that the modern Catholic — perhaps I should say the “modernist” Catholic — tends to equate loving with liking and some persistently tell me I am wrong when I claim it is possible to have one without the other.

A lot of people confuse the two anyway, mainly because — in the English-speaking world at any rate — we have a nasty tendency to use the words interchangeably. I say “nasty” because misusing words or using them in a slapdash “well, you know what I meant” way probably leads to more misunderstandings between people than anything else.So when I say that I “love” chocolate or that I “love” the symphonies of Vaughan Williams (to hark back to my last post) I really am saying that I like them very much.

To take the argument a step further, if we consider love purely on the emotional level it is something we feel or do not feel and therefore to an extent it is something over which we have little control. But if that were the case, how can we explain Jesus’ reply to the scribe who asked Him what was the most important commandment?

The gospel for today (Friday of week 3 of Lent, Mark 12, 28-34) recounts the incident and the telling reply:

… you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

So we are commanded to love God as we are also commanded to love our neighbour. Love, our Blessed Lord tells us, is not something which is left to our feelings; it is something which we are obliged to do. So “liking” doesn’t come into it. Anyway, I could hardly be expected to like my next door neighbour who lets his eight-foot leylandii hedge continue to block out the light to my garden or plays heavy metal music till 3 o’clock in the morning or lets his out-of-control rottweiler do its business on my carefully tended lawn.

But, Jesus tells, me I have to love him. What Jesus does not say is that I have to like him, so love is something apart from that. I can behave charitably towards him; I can treat him honestly and fairly in my dealings with him; I can sympathise with him in times of trouble and be prepared to be happy with him and for him in the good times.

I can encourage him (to play his music less loudly and keep his dog under control — nobody says loving him means always putting up with his failings, just not making an issue of them!); I can refrain from judging him; I can pray for him.

So “love” in  the context that Jesus is talking about is not concerned with feelings towards people but with actions towards them. And when better time than Lent to look closely at ourselves and ask if we are demonstrating this sort of love for our neighbours, friends, work colleagues, and anyone else we associate on a regular basis?

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Thoughts for Lent — 2

YESTERDAY’S atrocity in central London is one more reminder of the extent to which some people will go in furtherance of their beliefs. For us as Catholics such an action is a particular challenge for two different  but not unrelated reasons.

We are confident, most of us, in our belief that we are members of the One, Holy, Catholic (ie universal) Church, a membership which we might in more generous moments extend to other denominations which call themselves Christian though their beliefs may fall short of acceptance of the Trinity or Transubstantiation. We know we are right because God Himself has told us so.

With that belief and that conviction go the demand that we “preach the gospel to all nations”, unless of course we assume that this instruction was for the apostles only and is really nothing to do with us. “All” nations includes those who produce Islamist fanatics prepared to use bullets, bombs, and the occasional kitchen knife in pursuit of …

… of what, precisely? The logic is incoherent. Killing an unbeliever gets you no further forward. Neither does killing a planeload, at least to any meaningful extent.  Being killed in the process of killing unbelievers gets you martyrdom and instant transport to paradise where 72 virgins await your pleasure (if I have the right translation; others differ). Delightful as that might be it seems a rather limited, not to say nihilistic, view of eternity.

My own view, for which I have ample authority from a variety of sources, not least my favourite theologian Frank Sheed, is that heaven will provide all the joys that one could conceivably have enjoyed on earth but to perfection. All the delights of the senses — the music of Vaughan Williams or Ed Sheeran, the art of Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock — are God-created for our benefit and since we have been promised that we will be reunited with our bodies, perfect bodies that is, at the end of time we must presume if there is any logic to our belief that we will able to experience the same sensations as we do now only as God intended them to be experienced.

But we need to earn all this and meanwhile we have a job to do on earth which is to persuade our fellow beings that our path is the right one, that others may attain an eternal reward but that we have “the message of eternal life” because Jesus gave it to us. At the very least all those who have not found the true way need to be constantly in our prayers and that includes the misguided and the murderers as well as those who find themselves caught up and washed along in this tide of extremism.

That is one challenge for us. The other is to examine our own consciences and ask how far along the path of the extremist we ourselves would be prepared to go for what we believe in. How many of us would truly be prepared to die for the faith? If someone burst into our church next Sunday waving his Kalashnikov and yelling “Allahu akbar”, how many of us would throw ourselves at him and make ourselves willing martyrs to prevent him creating a dozen or more unwilling martyrs around us?

Rarely does God ask us to go quite that far. Lent is a good time to ask ourselves how far we do go, how far we can go, how far God is asking us to go. And how often we say to Him, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will.”

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On Guardian Angels

THERE IS A story about Group Captain Cheshire who took over command of the famous ‘Dam Busters’ squadron in 1943.

For two days after he arrived his driver sat in the staff car with nothing to do, frequently watching him walk away to wherever it was he was going and apparently unaware of her existence. Eventually she took herself off to the station commander and asked if the Group Captain was indeed unaware of her existence. “You’d better ask him,” was the reply, so she did and was (in the words of Cheshire’s biographer Paul Brickhill), “… staggered when he confessed that he didn’t even know he had a car at his disposal.”

“It was fairly typical of the man,” Brickhill continues, “never taking for granted what lesser men demanded.”

I was reminded of this story when reading Francis Fernandez’s meditation on Guardian Angels on Tuesday of this week and it crossed my mind to wonder how many guardian angels are “sitting outside” waiting for us to remember or even to discover that they exist and are there for our benefit.

The Church teaches that every one of us has their own personal guardian angel appointed “to light and guard, to rule and guide” from the moment of conception to the moment of our death. Their whole purpose, if asked, is to look after our spiritual welfare, and our temporal welfare also to some extent since, as Fernandez points out, there is no reason not to ask for help even for something as mundane as being able to find a parking place! (In fact, given the congestion in modern city streets anyone who can help in that regard is well worth keeping on the right side of!)

The important phrase, of course, is “if asked”! Most of us already understand that trying to outwit Satan and his hordes on our own can only be disastrous and we seek help from Our Lord and Our Lady through Mass and the Rosary, through our daily prayers and meditations and the Sacraments — and rightly so — but how many of us bother to hold any sort of conversation with our guardian angel whose sole purpose while we live is to “hold our hand” and, again so the Church teaches, to accompany us on that final journey when we confront God to account for the life we have lived.

That conversation can never be two-way but there are times when it can come fairly close and the more we treat our guardian angel as a friend, confidant, and counsellor the more likely it is that we will be able to feel some sort of rapport.Don’t take my word for it; read any of the lives of the saints. But I will give one example because it happened to me and you are welcome to put your own interpretation on it.

One of the dangers of being retired in the computer age is that you find yourself at the breakfast table checking your e-mails on the iPad, reading the on-line newspapers, catching up on the social media (though I have managed to avoid Facebook and Twitter so far!) and finding before you know it that your shoulders hurt and your eyes hurt and it’s nearly time for morning coffee! So I made the decision that I would not do that. I would leave the table and do some definite outdoor task and on those days when there was no definite task to do I would spend a quarter-hour sitting quietly in an armchair. That’s it. I had nothing else in mind.

Until suddenly something inside me said — because these are exactly the words I ‘heard’ — “That’s a good idea. And just nice time for saying your Rosary as well.” Make what you will of it.

To return to Leonard Cheshire for a moment. After the war he became heavily involved in charitable work which in the early days was very much hand-to-mouth. In a brief description at the end of his book, Brickhill notes:

I’ve asked him several time how he paid it all off, and he always says, “I can’t really explain it. Things just seemed to work out.” He did, in fact, develop a fatalistic attitude that if he did not worry things would be all right. Peculiarly enough, they were.

He quotes three instances in which the Home he was running was within two days of being able to pay a bill only to have almost the exact amount required arrive unsolicited in the post just in time.

Coincidence? Or someone’s guardian angel working overtime?

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What about free will

I WAS TAKEN to task yesterday over my comment that Jesus could — in theory — have given in to Satan’s temptations. How could I suggest anything so outlandish?

Well, for a start if we didn’t occasionally suggest outlandish things, even hypothetical possibilities,we would never make any sort of progress as human beings. Some of the most outlandish ideas (at the time) have ultimately proven to be correct.

In this case I was simply pointing out that as a human being Jesus bar-Joseph was equipped with that essential God-given facility — free will. Had he not been then he would have been lacking in his humanity with all that that implied, as I said in yesterday’s posting. So allowing for that we have to assume that the possibility to succumb to temptation exists — in theory.

Our Lord resisted because of His love for His Father, His understanding of how wrong giving in would be, perhaps because He knew (who better?) that anything that Satan wanted Him to do would be bound to turn out badly. Did He at any stage feel that it would be so much easier to say ‘yes’? Perhaps.We do and why should the human Jesus feel differently?

There is a lesson to be learned here. Satan can only tempt us to the extent that God permits him to and we will not be tempted beyond our ability to resist. But if we understand that and we also love God and understand how wrong giving in would be and that anything Satan wants us to do will turn out badly and we ask for help from Our Lord and Our Lady and our guardian angel and our patron saint (and aren’t I the lucky one because mine is Michael?!) Satan and all his demons will rapidly go and look for easier pickings elsewhere.

Free will is about choices: we make them every minute of every day. The only free will that matters is the choice between saying ‘yes’ to God and saying ‘yes’ to Satan. “With a little help from our friends” in heaven making the right choice becomes much easier.

Happy Lent!

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Thoughts for Lent— 1

THE TEMPTATION of Our Lord raises a whole series of questions which very often we don’t bother to answer though looking below the surface can be quite rewarding. Let us have a look.

The first question we perhaps ought to ask is: why did God allow Himself to be tempted at all? Most theologians agree that since temptation is an essential part of the human condition, for God not to have allowed for His Son to be tempted would have made Jesus less than human and the whole rationale behind the way in which our redemption was worked out meant that the Redeemer had to be “one of us”.

Which, presumably, means that Jesus could — in theory at least — have given in to any of those temptations. To have done so in the case of the first one — turning stones into bread — could hardly have been said to be sinful, at least per se. But when Satan in person comes to tempt you it is a fair bet that even doing something that is not itself sinful will rapidly lead him on to suggesting something that is!

A more intriguing question is whether Satan knew who it was he was trying to seduce. At least initially. It is extremely unlikely that God will have sent Satan an email quoting where and when and how mankind’s redemption was to happen. And even less likely that His internal communications were leaked! However it is highly likely that he knew fairly quickly that there was at least a new prophet on the scene and one who, according to his spies, apparently had God’s personal approval (Matthew 3.17, Mark 1.11, Luke 3.22).

Better take a closer look!

The first temptation is straightforward enough and on the face of it fairly harmless (aren’t they always?!). You are hungry; you are a prophet; can you turn stones into bread? “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”, is not the answer he was looking for. Who is this guy? Try again.

So the second temptation focuses more on the possibility that this is indeed “He who is to come” of whom it was said (Psalm 91) “[the angels] will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone”. Of course, if Satan had really, really known who he was dealing with he would have realised that He had no need of angels to stop him from hitting the ground, but then while we know Satan is crafty we never said he was all that bright! Remember he is only allowed to tempt us to the extent that God allows him to.

And Satan lets Jesus “off the hook” as it were by saying “if you are the Son of God ..” giving Our Lord the perfect escape route and He immediately quotes back at Satan, “Scripture also says ‘you must not put the Lord your God to the test.

So far, not so lucky. But if this is the Son of God he has come to take away Satan’s kingdom. How, Satan doesn’t know. God, as I said, has not “cued him in” on what is in store but one thing is for sure and that is that He plans to take to Himself “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour” which is fine provided I can get Him to acknowledge me as top dog because that way I get them all and Him as well. (I did say he was crafty but not all that bright!)

So he tries the last throw of the dice. “You can have the lot! Just get down on your knees and worship me.” And now very quickly realised just who it was he was up against and retreated in confusion to have another think about things.

But though Satan has lost the war there are still skirmishes he can win. He may have lost the human race but there are still individuals that can be persuaded to sign up to his short-term gain which only turns into eternal nihilism. Lent is the ideal time to start making sure we aren’t among his conquests.


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Going the extra mile

ONE PHRASE which annoys me is “go the extra mile”. My daughter is in full agreement on this since we have both at various times in our lives worked for the sort of company which uses management-speak as a substitute for intelligent communication with its employees. The follow-up is often “the rewards will be great” which is a further cause for gnashing of teeth because the rewards for going that extra mile never materialised in the wage packet of the dumb donkey that plodded on. Not in my experience at least. Perhaps his line manager was more fortunate

Of course, as Christians we ought to be happy to go the extra mile because we have been assured on the very best authority that the rewards will indeed be great and we have every reason to trust our Manager when He tells us so.

If I were a betting man, which I used to be but am no longer, I would risk a small wager that the advocates of (other people) going that extra mile do not have a clue where the phrase originates. We, of course, know better because it comes from Matthew’s gospel (ch5 v41) which was read as the Gospel for last Sunday (as I am sure you remember!)

We are still in the Sermon on the Mount with Our Lord continuing to expound on His text of two weeks ago: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come to fulfil them”. And He adds that not one iota of the Law shall disappear until its purpose is achieved. It would do us all good, I am sure, to read and to re-read the whole of Chapter 5 (and of course the whole of all the gospels as often as we can) because this is another vital part of Our Lord’s message that the Commandments are still in place, there has been no resiling from the law as it was given to Moses but that we are now grown-up enough to understand that “Thou shalt not kill” was only the bare bones of what is needed for a righteous person to earn a place in paradise.

We must not just refrain from killing our brother but even a falling-out and harsh words are something to be repented of. Not just the act of adultery is sinful but so also is the thought, which (I think) is apart from and more speficic than the general command not to covet your brother’s wife which in most versions of the Commandments outside the Catholic Church is not “itemised” separately.

So more is going to be demanded of those who choose to follow Our Lord than simply the Commandments. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that acts of charity were not anything new. Nobody expressed surprise at the thought of someone stopping to help an injured man and I suspect that the man who asked “who is my neighbour?” knew quite well what the answer was going to be. The parable simply reinforces what most people knew all along if only anyone had ever asked them to think about it.

Be generous and outgoing in your dealings with your fellow human beings is at least part of the message. And that means all of them. Any fool can be pleasant with those who are pleasant with him. The test of what sort of a person you are is how you treat those who maltreat you. Do you sink to their level and trade insult for insult, blow for blow? As Our Lord might have said but didn’t quite, “animals do that and you are supposed to be better than animals.” Do you, as we say, “rise above it”?

Read again that passage from last Sunday, “… for He causes the sun to rise on bad men as well as good and the rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike.” And think also what Our Lord says about judging, and motes and beams and remember that at times we are all “bad” and “dishonest” and in need of the very love that Our Lord commands that we show to those who are not our friends.

Maybe by our generosity, our “going the extra mile” they may become our friends because it is worth recalling something that Abraham Lincoln said when he was asked why he refused to destroy his enemies and was always lenient towards them. “Surely, ” he replied, “I destroy my enemies by making them my friends.”



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Thoughts on faith

FRANK SHEED’S book Theology and Sanity has long been a favourite of mine and one I return to frequently for inspiration. His premise is simple: the more you can learn about God, the better you come to know Him, the more you will love Him and that, in essence, is the basis of his theology.

At the same time he has a high regard for the faith of those perhaps not intellectually equipped to study their religion deeply but whose devotion to God is every bit as great and in its way perfect as anybody’s. The peasant woman (always a woman in these examples!) who goes to Mass most mornings and says her rosary every day will probably, Sheed says, end up in heaven before he will. Unmoved by doubts she simply takes her faith as she was taught it and believes it implicitly.

Which does not mean, he says, that learning more about God and listening to His teachings with an open ear and a receptive mind will not be profoundly beneficial to those who choose to follow that road.

In last Tuesday’s gospel the Pharisees expressed themselves shocked that Jesus’ followers did not wash their hands before they sat down to eat. Mark was evidently not amused because he adds his own editorial comment at this point about rituals that had been handed down regarding not just hand-washing but how to deal with all the crockery and cutlery as well. Nor was Jesus who picked out one example of how the Pharisees had perverted God’s teaching for their own benefit and quoted Isaiah (ch 29):

… this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips glorify me, but their heart is far from me, and they have feared me with the commandment and doctrines of men

He elaborates further and the gospel for last Wednesday tells us what it is that truly makes a man unclean:

the things which come out from a man, they defile a man for from out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.

In those three verses of Mark’s gospel (ch 7 vv 20-22) it seems to me we have the essence of Jesus’ teaching. If we were to stop there and go no further with the gospels we would still have the core of Christian teaching, simple guidance in 25 words. Avoid these things and you will be OK!

There is of course a lot more to Christianity than that — the Passion and Death of Our Lord, the Resurrection, the Mass and the Sacraments, all essential to our salvation — but if we also recall Jesus’ words that “unless you become as little children you cannot enter the kingdom” we can perhaps come to realise that we do not need to seek beyond the simple teachings. If there is greater understanding for us there, as Sheed would argue that there is, then well and good; we should not be discouraged from looking further into our faith but it is to be done with care and humility. In the words of Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so is my soul.

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Times and seasons

THE FEAST which we celebrated last Thursday marks, for many of us “conservative” (read “traditionalist”!) Catholics the proper end of Christmastide. In fact before the modernisation/simplification/dumbing down (pick your own description) of the liturgy 50 years ago The Feast of the Presentation was officially the end of the Season of Christmas.

I have commented before on the Church’s helter-skelter dash through the very early days of Jesus’ public life from the marriage at Cana through his baptism by John to the calling of the first apostles and though this may leave us a little breathless there is really very little choice when we consider what needs to be got through between now and Easter, at best a bare three months away.

Why, then, does the Church deal with all the events associated with Jesus’ birth in real time? The Annunciation, which the Church quite logically takes as the date of His conception, is followed three months later by the birth of John the Baptist (“… she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month …”) and six months after that by Jesus’ own birth and 40 days after that by His presentation to God as a first-born son, “according to the scriptures” (a phrase we hear repeated frequently throughout the New Testament).

So ir is made abundantly clear to us that these are real events that really happened. The chronology of these events — the “time line”, if you like — from conception through to the requirement that a first-born be ‘redeemed’ by the offering of a pair of turtle doves is there in black and white. Whether any of those precise dates is correct is irrelevant but we can be assured because the gospels tell us so that these happenings did take place and the Church reinforces that by deliberately incorporating them into its liturgy and placing them correctly in relationship to each other.

The one episode in Jesus’ life not accounted for in the gospels so far is His 40-day fast in the desert which chronologically ought to follow from His baptism by John. But though chronology may have its uses  it is not everything and the beginning of Lent — itself a reminder of that episode — is the right and proper time for us to begin the serious matter of looking forward with Jesus to the Day of our redemption. I hope this year to have more frequent but shorter postings aimed at giving us all something to think about and reflect on during that time.

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“Never mind the quality …

… feel the width”

Those of us of a certain age (or maybe that should be of uncertain age) might remember this late 60s ITV sitcom about two tailors. Their names were Cohen and Kelly which probably tells you all you need to know about the likely plot lines and would explain why no mainstream channel is every likely to show it again!

The title would also serve very well to describe what was (in my very lowly opinion) one of the worst decisions to emerge from the Second Vatican Council at just about the same time — the decision to dilute the gospel message by spreading the readings over three years.

Jesus’ life and work was recounted in three separate ways by three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, each placing his emphasis in a different way to give us a rounded picture of events. John complements this with a much more intense and intensive reporting of our Saviour’s message, notably in ch 6 where he gives the, to the crowd, shocking message that v53, … unless you eat of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you … and in the Last Supper discourse in chs 13-17.

Many of the events are recorded in different ways by different writers. Some are recorded only once. John himself says at the end of his gospel (ch20 v25) … there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”. (Obviously a man who had never heard of the internet!) So each evangelist has made an editorial decision as to what he includes and what he leaves out. Matthew and Luke begin their narrative before Jesus’ birth; Mark and John pick up the story as He opens His public ministry.

To come close to a full understanding of Jesus we need to read the gospels in their entirety and in their context with each other. We need to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ life and work and message. The morsel extracted for Sunday reading cannot fill the bill here. So why then am I decrying the idea of building the year’s gospel readings round all three synoptics with additional material from John where relevant?

The answer is because we have sacrificed depth (quality) for quantity (width) and that brings us back to the question of catechesis and for the purposes of this post to today, the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A when the gospel reading deals with the Beatitudes.

On the subject of catechesis I would ask any passing reader who is interested to go and look at the Catholic News Agency‘s article on the subject. Their page and links are better than mine! On the subject of the Beatitudes, these are a part of one of Jesus’ most important teachings, now normally referred to as The Sermon on the Mount. Far too important, I would argue, only to be heard in depth one year in three.

The Beatitudes are not the only gospel story which ought to be taken to heart and expounded on by pastors year in, year out. The marriage feast at Cana, the parable of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the rest of the sermon on the mount, in Matthew’s version which gives more detail of Jesus’ words on anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and more!

Many of these are stories we all know but therein lies another danger. A story is told of a lawnmower salesman in Canada who, as soon as the winter snows abated would set off into the hinterland and visit all his retailers selling his wares. He was well-known, had worked this territory for 20 years and was always made welcome. Until one year when he found that orders were down and many of his contacts seemed unable to look him in the eye. At last he challenged one of them directly, as long-standing friends, please tell him what the problem was.

“Well,” said his friend, “a lot of us are buying from XXX this year. They have a new range out with …” and he proceeded to list two or three innovations that improved performance without basically changing the look or feel of the machine.

The salesman was horrified. “But we introduced all those things three years ago,” he said.

“Dammit, Henry,” said the dealer, “you never mentioned any of them!”

Object lesson in becoming over-familiar!

It would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that it is a pastor’s job to go out and “sell” the Faith but why? These stories that we all know, or in some cases think we know, are of little use if we don’t know what they mean. The gospels, indeed the whole of the New Testament, is there for our edification, not solely for our entertainment. Better, surely, if our pastors really concentrated on the vital parts of the message, expounded in depth on the meaning of the important things, and instructed us in depth in Jesus’ message.

Otherwise we end up like the lawn mower retailer, buying a different product because our regular salesman doesn’t concentrate on the important information and on making sure that we properly get the message.

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There came three wise men from the east …

RECENT exploration of an unidentified (for security reasons) site in the Middle-East is alleged to have uncovered scrolls which appear to date from around the first century AD and would seem to be records of interviews with local people by officials of the time investigating widespread rumours concerning unusual events in Judea and Galilee.

[DISCLAIMER] Provenance of these scrolls has yet to be established and extracts are printed here strictly on that basis.


LET ME TELL YOU what it was really like.

For a start it was cold. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t get snow in Judea because you do! Not often, mind, and mostly in the hills. But that winter was a bad one and no mistake.

How did we get involved? It was all down to that syphilitic idiot Augustus and his stupid damned census. Whoever heard of anything so crazy? Jews wandering back and forward across half of Palestine looking for where their great-grandfathers came from. And in the middle of the worst winter for who knows how long!

And not just Jews, mind. This whole farce was right across the province. Anatolia, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia …

We weren’t kings, by the way. That was just a tale invented later. Made a good story, I suppose. And we weren’t all that wise, either, unless it was at spotting a good business opportunity. We were traders, pure and simple, but we reckoned where better to turn a profit than where people are on the move.

So, to cut a long story short, we packed up the camels and headed for Judea. Why Judea? Search me. Could have been anywhere. It just happened to be Judea.

It was a good trip. Apart from the cold, that is. Sold most of our stuff before we ever got close to Jerusalem and we were just about there when we started hearing funny stories about shepherds having visions.

I still can’t understand why we paid any heed to them. Stories about peasants hallucinating aren’t exactly something to get excited about. I mean, being a shepherd is a bit of a boring job and cold and you need a drop of something warming to keep the chill out … know what I mean?

But for some reason all three of us got hooked on the idea that this story meant something. None of us could explain why but we felt certain this wasn’t just idle market chatter.

And then, of course, there was the star.

We’d never seen the like. And neither had anyone else in Jerusalem so far as we could tell. They thought it was a bad omen — those who bothered to think about it at all.

But Balthasar — yes, they got our names right, whatever else — I’m Melchior, by the way; anyway, Balthasar — he’s the brainy one; did a bit of studying with a couple of the Persian mystics before he went on the road. He said there are lots of signs and symbols in the skies and this looked like one to him and he thought it might mean the birth of somebody important.

Then Caspar piped up and said that the Jews believed that a great leader would come to free them from bondage — though he did admit that according to their writings their god had freed them from bondage several times already and all the thanks he ever got was to have them thumb their noses at him so he just let them get captured again.

Anyway, Caspar thought that from something he’d read this latest big chief, they called him a messiah apparently, was due about now so maybe this was it.

Well … he sounded convinced and census was over and we weren’t in any great hurry so we thought “what’s to lose; why not go and nose about and see what’s what.” Except that we didn’t know what or who we were looking for or even where.

Balthasar said we had to be looking for a baby because that was what the star was all about and Caspar said he thought we were looking for a king though he didn’t seem quite sure why.

So I said that since we didn’t have a clue we’d need to ask someone and the best person to ask where the next king of the Jews had been born had to be that old bruiser Herod. So why didn’t we go and ask him. They both looked at me as if I was mad and you can understand why: three travelling salesmen pitch up at Herod’s palace unannounced and ask if someone can tell them where the next king of the Jews has been born.

But nobody had a better idea, so that’s what we did. Spun a bit of a yarn about signs in the heavens and enough of Balthasar’s mystic stuff to make us seem more important than we really were. Not all that difficult when you remember we’re supposed to be salesmen. And come to think of it that’s probably where the “wise men” version of the story came from.

We never got to see Herod himself of course — probably just as well – and we were kept hanging around for a couple of days before we got a summons to some dignitary who told us “Try Bethlehem. And if you find this king come back and tell us. Herod would like a word with him.” Well, we took that with a fine pinch of salt, I can tell you.

So off to Bethlehem we went without a clue what we were going to do when we got there until Caspar had the idea of asking a couple of shepherds if they knew anything that might help.

Oh! they knew all right! And they were full of it. It was them and a couple of others that had been involved from the beginning and they told us the full tale — bright lights, singing angels, the lot. And a king born in a stable. Easy to understand why the local populace wasn’t exactly falling over themselves to believe it.

But then we’ve slept in some funny places in our time and when it’s time to be born then you don’t have a lot of choice and if this young couple had turned up late and the only place left that was dry and warm-ish was a stable … well!

Once census was done and everybody away they found somewhere a bit more congenial, according to one of the shepherds.

“D’you see that star?”, he said “They’re in that house you can see over there, directly underneath it.”

So off we go again with Balthasar muttering something about gifts. “You don’t visit kings without taking gifts,” he said. And I’m thinking, this is mad. But we’ve got this far we might as well go through with it.

I’ve still got some myrrh left and Balthasar’s got a few spices including some frankincense he couldn’t shift. Caspar’s sold out and says he’s got nowt to give, the old miser. “You’ll just have to give him some of your gold, then,” I said. Caspar’s never been short of the odd gold piece, believe you me.

And when we get there, what’s special about this baby? For a start he looks like a baby. Small and ugly. Is he a king? How would I know? But we all agreed afterwards there was something about him and about being in his presence. We thought that he could be destined for something but we couldn’t quite put our fingers on what. Caspar said he thought he might be some sort of god but then Caspar always was a bit weird.

Next day, Balthasar ups and says we ought to head off towards Damascus instead of going back to Jerusalem ‘cos he’s had a dream that says Herod wants the kid dead and I say you didn’t need a dream to work that one out and off we go and that’s about it.

It wasn’t till later I found out the evil old sod had got his revenge anyway by murdering every boy child in Bethlehem. Bastard!


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