Balthazar's legs were stiff. As his servant pressed the animal's powerful neck low to the moon-washed desert sand, the old philosopher slipped from his kneeling camel. More nimbly than their elder, Melchior and Gaspar dismounted without assistance. A porter led their camels to the palm grove for water as the three pilgrims spread their caftans for an hour's rest.
They reclined in silence, the respite of a long night's journey. While traveling had constrained them into an acquaintance not unlike friendship, the three maintained that mutual aloofness native to men of rank. Until now, the three had known each other only as fellow, nay, even rival masters at the Academy in Baghdad.
Old Balthazar was a Persian mathematician who had studied at the temple of Pythagoras in Italy. Having traveled the civilized world, even as far as Tibet, he was lauded as the great Magus of his generation. Leaving hundreds of disciples at the Academy, he had departed with two fellows and a handful of porters on this desolate desert crossing, which he insisted was "his final pilgrimage." Balthazar was chiefly famous for his mathematical description of angels, especially his Geometry of Hierarchies, which proved that the constellations were ordered by "a will toward beauty."Dealing as it did with the latest theories in science, Balthazar's work attracted Melchior, the princely young Egyptian alchemist, now his fellow traveler. Melchior had entered the Academy in Baghdad, not as a student of the old master, but as a rival philosopher. Their pilgrim party was completed by a prodigious Hindu Brahmin named Gaspar.Gaspar's journey began in a monastery at Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he had studied with the greatest disciple of Shankara before secluding himself in a forest hermitage at the Ganges' source. There Gaspar wrote his astrological proof of Advaita Vedanta, devising a mathematical foundation for the Upanishadic sutra, "Ano raniyan, mahato mahiyan: One atom of the smallest is greater than the greatest." Using the new science of calculus, Gaspar proved that atomic configurations of human anatomy reflected the patterns of heavenly constellations to form an inter-dimensional continuum from micro to macrocosm which ultimately defined the physiology of a single, cosmic, human body.
Melchior, the Egyptian, wrote a commentary on Gaspar's thesis, suggesting that Gaspar's "cosmic anthropology" implied a teleological end, the birth of a "star-atomed man," an event which would mark the attainment of Selfhood by the cosmos. Two years later, when Melchior's thesis finally reached India, Gaspar responded with astronomical calculations proving that such an event would, in fact, occur in the present generation. Their metaphysical dialogue across the continents, from Alexandria to Rishikesh, finally drew the Egyptian and the Indian together in Baghdad, at the school of their elder, Balthazar.
"I wondered if my scroll would reach the West in time to warn you that the Birth was immanent," said Gaspar, disturbing the stream of milky silence that poured like some etheric nectar from the glistening stars. Relieved at the opportunity to discharge what was smoldering in their breasts, the three fell into a soft but heated discussion.
"My calculations led to the same conclusion as yours, Gaspar!" said the Egyptian. "Your treatise was the finest addendum to Plato's Timaeus in a hundred years, truly! But, if I may say, your original argument failed to include the critical last step. You brilliantly demonstrated how the galactic macro-equations resolve into the mathematical image of a human body. But the Cosmic Man will not be a person, fully aware of himself, unless he experiences the limitations of a human birth, on a material planet. The principle is even stated by your philosopher, Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras: Consciousness is fully awakened only by the taste of its opposite, through the contrast of boundless intelligence with a finite body. There must be an Incarnation!"
"That was implicit in my equations, Melchior! Not to imply that I was first, no," Gaspar thumped his Brahmin palm against the sand, "but I had already proved it!"
In Egypt," Melchior insisted icily, "we proved it too." He paused for Gaspar to imbibe these words. Then he continued, "Your theory, sir, belongs not to India alone, but to the planetary atmosphere. It is in the air. Elders at Alexandria speak of these mysteries. I hear the same from Corinth and Antioch. 'This is the hour!' they all whisper. Of course, the common people don't know anything about it: except these Jews, who expect to get some sort of king out of the affair to lead them in a civil war. But in the temples, in the academies, all agree. We dwell at the turning point of the ages. Isn't that right Balthazar?"
The quiet old Persian smiled. "Even in Rome there are such thoughts."
"Rome!" the Indian chuckled. "If they know it in the city of wine and roast pig, then the odor of revelation must be in the air!"
"That is true," Melchior continued seriously. "Thoughts like these do not arise in the personal mind, but are gleaned by the brain out of prevailing elements in the ether. Now, because more mercury than sulfur predominates, due to a lessening influence of Mars, and from Jupiter a greater degree of...."
"My fellow pilgrim," Balthazar interjected as graciously as possible, "Just look up at these stars! It is more than chemistry that descends upon this world. Surely, you remember why we are here."
They looked up into the color of silence, deeper than black, where clustered stars pulsed like a candelabra over a banquet table. These stars appeared unnaturally close and intimate. A shudder passed through their three bodies, a strangely familiar tremor: as if this very night, the silver outspread sand, the almost tangible anticipation of secret mysteries about to be revealed, had been waiting for them in this place for ten thousand years. Their hearts were absorbed in an intensely serious joy.
"An angel has come upon us," Balthazar whispered.
"These atoms of air," muttered the Egyptian, "salts, crystals, don't you see?"
For a radius of nearly five meters around them, some ethereal pressure created a mellifluous golden cloud in the cold desert air. Within this sphere, the substance of space itself seemed thicker, rippling in violet undulations. Sparkles infinitesimal as photons danced around their faces, throbbing against their brains with a subliminal ringing. Melchior trembled because he thought they had discovered some fantastic new chemical in the desert wind, while Gaspar kept glancing nervously at the crescent moon, fearing an un-calculated eclipse.
"What are you looking at Balthazar?" whispered the Egyptian.
"I'm listening," answered the old man. "I think it is speaking to us."
As if the infinitesimal atoms of air were tiny crystal bells, the silence chimed. Shivers of moonlight precipitated into viscous strands, using every ambiguity of flickering star, every strain on human attention, to seduce the senses to a vision of celestial lineaments: two eyes, floating jewels of moonlight; brow of liquid silver spilling down to pearly cheeks, nose, and lips; now the whole human countenance crystallized from transparency at that verge where consciousness consents with space to manifest a burning violet flame that is both matter and spirit, circumscribed by golden streams of hair, falling on a purple robe of luminous pulsation, revealing the whole stature of a warrior with diamond gaze over six feet tall, arms outstretched where he, or was it she?, descends upon the desert sand.
From the dreamy suspension of his intellect, where the weary monologue of thought had ceased awhile, Gaspar was startled by the sting of sand in a gust of wind. It was not at all clear to him how long he had been gazing into the angel's face, which now evaporated into the usual, though somehow more intimate, resonance of starlight. "Balthazar," he whispered, "did it speak with you?" There was no answer.
Melchior, meanwhile, mumbled about some conjunction of Venus and Neptune, "Or Saturn perhaps, yes, I think it was Saturn," until his logic trickled off into luminous silence. The other two stood up, wrapping their caftans against the breeze, and hastened toward the camels that waited among the palms.
Gaspar asked the Persian again, "What did it say? I know that it spoke to you."
Balthazar sighed, "I fear, young friend, my reputation exceeds me. I have not grown pure enough to attune to their sound."
"Was there any sort of.... word?"
"It is not a hearing as we know it, Gaspar, but a resonance of the nerves in our bodies with very small waves of light."
Melchior, with tears in his eyes, caught up to them, pulling on their sleeves. "Forgive me. I have not wept since I was a child. I have never... It was so new... Was it real?"
Balthazar laughed heartily. "My brilliant alchemist, is the gift of tears not proof enough?"
"But certain conjunctions could cause..."
"Yes, Melchior, certain conjunctions are necessary to shape the occasion, the chemistry of the air through which it manifests a body. But have no doubt: it was God's messenger."
Melchior was quiet for the next hour, having discovered a more important element in his own tears. Balthazar led the way, searching the sky, then pointing over the land, until it seemed they were crossing not only the desert of sand but a mirror of stars. The Persian explained that, though he could not hear the angel's voice, he could feel its will: not as thought in his mind, but as pure sensation in the heart.
"Where is it leading?" Gaspar asked.
"To the place of the Birth," the old man answered. "The angel has infused into my heart the image of a valley. We must leave the plateau and descend."
At the last caravansary, Balthazar asked a local porter who had joined them for this leg of the journey, "Is there a valley near?"
"Yes, master. A few furlongs to the southwest the desert descends into a fertile valley."
"Then we shall go southwest," said Balthazar.
"If I remember," added Gaspar, who loved maps and studied them at every stop, "it is toward the town which locals call The House of Bread."
"Beth-Lechem," said the porter.
"Then we go to Beth-Lechem," said Balthazar.
Their modest caravan journeyed on in silence, camels rolling gracefully across the dunes like boats on a moonlit sea. Eventually, Melchior spoke. "I suppose your disciples thought you mad to come on this journey. What did you tell them?"
"I told them it was a family matter," answered the Persian.
Then the Indian said to Balthazar, "Sir, you surely reached the same understanding as Melchior and I. When did you conclude that there must be a Birth?"
Balthazar measured his thoughts quietly, stroked his majestic silver whiskers, then spoke. "I have not published a treatise on these mysteries, as you have. I decided to keep them to myself. My research, like yours, indicated that the cosmos was approaching its moment of Self-Knowledge, to express and infuse the Spirit of Wisdom into all creation, from the furthest galaxy to the tiniest particle of dust on the bottom of my sandal. This world, every speck of it, must be soaked in pure Love.
"I concluded that the cosmic intelligence of the Creator could finally know its Self only in becoming one of its own creatures, confined in mortal matter, vulnerable and human as any of us. There was the mathematical necessity for a fusion of opposites at the center of an infinite cross. That center must be an actual place in time."
Gaspar nodded and Melchior said, "Go on."
"My calculus proved that the vectors of probability would converge in a mathematical singularity, whose symmetry must find reflection in every finite particle of matter. Evolution wills that each creature, great or small, must finally recapitulate the One. Please excuse this language. It's too dry, too technical to convey the elegance, the astonishment!"
"O continue, sir," whispered Gaspar.
"I mean to say then, when such an event occurs in God, it occurs in a human child: first in one, then in every human child. In each of us, there will be a kind of birth, the birth of a new faculty in the soul, something beyond knowledge, beyond reason and thought. A splendor, yes, a splendor will shine in our hearts."
"The Light Within!" Melchior interjected. "Our masters have hinted at it, though dimly."
"Exactly, Melchior. Until now, only a few have experienced that light: some Arhats, and Gautama known as Buddha, in my land; perhaps Plato and Master Pythagoras among the Greeks; and Hermes among your Egyptians. Ah, but now! When the Birth occurs, that divine spark will ignite all of us, both teacher and disciple equally, master and slave alike. Hierarchies will vanish.
"The change will not be instantaneous. After the Birth, it could take two thousand years for that event in time and space to ripple through all human souls. And yet, a thousand years are but a breath. One thing is certain tonight. We are about to step into an immense transformation. We are beginning the second half of eternity."
"But why here? Why now?" marveled the Egyptian.
"Why not?" the Persian answered.
"The design is intelligible, after all," said Melchior.
"Intelligible, yes," repeated Gaspar. "And yet, there is something very wonderful about it."
The wise men swayed to the rhythm of their animals. Theories spent, minds weary, they allowed a leading to emerge from the earth beneath them, from sand to hoof to scent on desert breezes. Their metaphysics had threshed out the limits of the possible. Now they humbly intuited the truth, and let their genius bow to their hearts. Perhaps for the first time in their lives they tasted the sweetness of inner silence, the silence of a mind that has plunged beyond its capacity to know. They let the camels lead them.
Behind them, the eastern horizon was a turquoise brush stroke. Cooling to a royal purple, the sky arched westward where bright stars still shimmered in the night. The camels descended over the crest of a valley. There, a tiny village nestled in palm clusters. Then a meteor sliced out of the dawn and disappeared on the dark horizon ahead.
"That was a finger pointing the way!" whispered Melchior.
"We don't need maps any more," Gaspar added, speaking mainly to himself. "This is the place."
The younger men looked to Balthazar for confirmation. He pulled at his beard and gazed upon the valley. "It is certain," he said.
"How can you be certain?" asked Melchior.
Balthazar stared at him, then turned and swept his arm over the valley. "Look!" he commanded. Their eyes gazed more deeply, though their minds could not comprehend.
At first glance, the haze enveloping the village appeared like any lowland mist at dawn. While each foggy patch seemed placid, a more patient look revealed strange vibrancy in the limpid air. Incandescent swirls precipitated into vanishing human shapes. When viewed directly, these aerial creatures were nearly invisible, dissolving into the very consciousness of the observer; but when suspended in peripheral vision, they lasted as luminous outlines, and conveyed more than light. They had emotion. Though many of them smiled with a vacuous, not quite human beatitude, others seemed grave, even anxious, with pursed lips and contracted brows; and some were wringing their hands, weeping.
The three men felt as if they had stumbled into a great catastrophe in another world, a world suspended in the nimbus of this one, whose ethereal inhabitants desperately awaited the outcome of some terrible trial.
The village of Bethlehem slept on under this cloud of celestial turmoil, only a few lights flickering where a mother sat up with a feverish child, or a watchman dozed at the gate of a Sadducee's home. The camels led their riders quietly through the streets, descending to an inn at the far edge of the town, where the valley gently spilled into its vineyards. They ambled around to the back of the building, where a courtyard opened to an unkempt pasture, at the end of which was a stable: hardly a true stable, but a lop-sided shed built at the entrance of a shallow cave in vine-clustered boulders. A few sheep and one ox huddled nearby, sleeping through the frigid hour before dawn.
By now, Gaspar and Melchior were convinced they had come to the wrong house. They believed that the camels were drawn there by the animal scent, and were simply looking for a feeding trough, which of course was perfectly true. But Balthazar seemed certain, so the others followed.
They dismounted. Gaspar whispered, "Are we meeting someone in this garden?"
Pointing to the cave, Balthazar unceremoniously stepped over the vines, parted the blanket that veiled the entrance from the chill night, and disappeared within. Melchior just stood there, marveling at the utter commonplace: a sheep fold in a thicket of grapes. Yet he sensed that, here at last, ineffable dignity imbued the ordinary. A holiness too simple to comprehend infused the timber and the nails. He bowed and entered.
Gaspar, the Indian astrologer, hesitated. He drew the blanket aside, but paused to look back across the rooftops of the village, gently lifting their weight of sleeping humanity eastward, upward, toward the desert plateau whence he had descended, and which already gleamed in dawn's light. "Perhaps this dusty blanket conceals a hidden temple," he mused. "When I part this veil, a new mystery will flood the world. My wisdom will be old." Involuntary trembling shook his body, but only for a moment. "What becomes of knowledge when the heart is free?"
Inside, Gaspar bumped into a donkey, its breath misting the silence of cold stone. Bleating in the dark, two sheep glanced restlessly at him, then settled back into their reverie. Gaspar stopped, puzzled by a golden gleam spilling onto the hay from the feeding trough, where someone must have piled fiery coals.
He saw his two friends kneeling in the straw among the animals. Melchior was staring with astonishment into the trough. But Balthazar was gazing at the woman, a great smile lighting his beard. She huddled in a faded blue gown, her eyes cast downward. She was at ease in the presence of such a renowned philosopher, unashamed by his adulation, her eyes bemused and slightly unfocused, with a weary yet contented glow, as if nothing in the world could ever surprise her again.
Gaspar crept up to warm himself, still uncertain what they were supposed to be doing there. Only then did he notice, in some straw at the bottom of the manger, a child's face gazing from impossible flames.
Originally published in 'The Friends Journal', Philadelphia,
December 15, 1986.