“. . . for unto us a child is born” or what constitutes a miracle?

Gold, frankincense, myrrh. Three wise men from the Orient on camels followed a star that led them to a manger in Jerusalem. There, a newborn lay in the arms of his virgin mother surrounded by animals – most likely cows, sheep, and a donkey.

RH-Wisemen2We do not know definitely where the men came from or even if they were only three. Most Biblical scholars say they would have come from Persia (Iran) and been followers of Zoroastrianism. As wise men, i.e. magi, they would have been of an educated class steeped in the belief that a person of holy origin was on his way. It was a widespread belief of the time. People were on the alert.

Since only three gifts were mentioned – glorious as they were! – it is usually assumed only three men came to the manger even though more learned men would have been in the region and vigilant for the arrival of a baby of the highest importance.

1-icon-of-the-nativity-juliet-venterShepherds also came to the manger, but they were from nearby fields where they were “keeping watch over their sheep by night.” An angel appeared to them and told them not to be afraid, but instead to rejoice for “This day in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is the messiah, the Lord.”

The shepherds went to Jerusalem where they found a babe lying in a manger, just as the angels told them they would.

I sense a timing issue. The shepherds were nearby, but for the wise men to arrive while Jesus was still in the manger, they either started following the star before he was born, or were, in fact, just over in the next village, or were beamed up. Given the appearance of angels, beaming up seems possible, as in “Beam me up, Scotty.”

It is a beautiful story of hope and wonder, one laden with miracles.

One star guided the way of three men 2000 years ago in a cosmos of more than 100 billion galaxies with an estimated 300 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, which is a relatively small galaxy but the one from which we can observe a universe with a radius of 13.7 billion light years expanding at an accelerating rate of 46 miles per second per megaparsec* and laden with black holes that attract anything near them into them, including galaxies, to potentially parallel cosmos that we cannot see but that, like ours, move through folding time warps and space twists, all of which is made of atoms that mimic really wild solar systems but are too infinitesimal to measure, further complicated by that atoms behave in uncertain ways influenced by the expectations of their observers and that atoms are made of even smaller elements called hadrons that are made of quarks that are divided into categories named up, down, strange, bottom, top, and charm, which may indicate quarks are made of even smaller elements, and in any case we know that quarks have been here since the beginning of everything 13.8 billion years ago when a single point exploded in a big bang and, from quarks to cosmos, all of it is held together by unseen forces named the strong force and the weak force that hold quarks together to make neutrons and protons that make atom nuclei, while magnetic and gravitation forces hold the earth together and hold humans on it.

Beaming up is a piece of cake in comparison.


Yet, so far as we know the cosmos doesn’t deal with human feelings of hope, joy, fear, guilt, or wonder. It does not ponder itself except possibly through entities like us, and surely it has no need for miracles, being itself beyond comprehension.

It is we who require miracles and long for what is just beyond our comprehension. Just beyond. We like our miracles guiding star-size, manger-size, angel-size, virgin-birth size. We like our miracles to bring joy and create wonder. That is an observable truth, and it is a fine truth, and it is a start. We should all be guided more often by the stars.


*A megaparsec is the distance of 3 million light years. Hence, every distance of 3 million light years in the cosmos expands by approximately 46 miles every second. 


Beyond Catfish: holding it together

[This blog, like some other recent ones, should probably be put in the category of “insomnia musings” except I don’t want to give the insomnia that credence in the hopes it will crawl back into its agitated corner.]

On the cusp of turning six years old my grandson asked me what holds atoms, as in one single atom, together. “Why don’t the electrons, protons, and neutrons all fly away? Is it gravity? Or, . . . or maybe magnetism?”

I muttered something about the weak force or the strong strong.

Ben: “Yes, but is the force gravity or magnetism?”

Me: No, it’s different.

A couple minutes later, Ben: “Okay. Well, what holds atoms together, like atoms that are alike? Like why doesn’t that truck fly apart?” (We were at a stop light next to a furniture delivery truck. Many of our best conversations are in the car.)

Ben was not asking about nuts, bolts, and axles. He was asking how are we held together “. . . or a leaf, or a tree, or a house. Why don’t they all fly apart?” I have often asked myself the same question. I contend that the difference between humans and other species is that we are aware that only something unexplainable stands between us and oblivion.

By the time he was eight, my older brother would fish, sometimes with me, in the teeny creek through the north meadow where the cows pastured. Catfish. Ugly critters that ruined my taste for fish for decades.

Fishing is a silent endeavor, even putting the live earthworms on the hooks. He taught me how to do this, the curve and threading of it, and I tried not to show how squeamish I was. The memory of wet fat “night crawlers” with the grit of dirt on them is sealed into my sight and touch.

He had a red and white plastic bobbin that fulfilled its job description by bobbing in the muddy water until a fish on a hook pulled it under. Mainly you stared at the bobbin and kept your silence.

photo 2Les took me fishing again when I was in my mid-50s. We took his boat out on the Saylorville Lake north of Des Moines and used radar to sight the fish deep below. I don’t remember what kind of fish we caught that day, but they were larger and prettier by far than the fingerlings of our childhood.

My brother, who died too young, attended church, but he also believed in the religion of fishing during the summer and the winter. He and my sister-in-law took early retirement from teaching and moved to a small town in Minnesota where their home was a couple blocks up from the Mississippi River. He was a serious ice fisherman.

We try to hold ourselves together through systems of belief: morals, ethics, religion, cultural rituals.

We try to hold ourselves together through personal identity: conservative, liberal, entrepreneur, nerd, millennial, elder, sports fanatic, freedom fighter, intellectual, poor, rich, traveler, professional, artist, parent, lover, teacher, fisherman, blogger.

We try to hold ourselves together through rules: legal codes, constitutions, oaths, grammar, proper attire, contracts, marriages, manners.

That is, we try to moor ourselves to tangible things – and self-concepts – so we don’t fly apart. We try to hold ourselves together by saying we are our particulars: we are musicians rather than music, we are poets rather than poetry, we are eyes rather than sight, we are fishermen rather than the taste of fish.

It doesn’t work, and it is not accurate because we are the music and the poetry and the seen and seeing, the fisherman and the taste of fish. The experience of music and poetry and sight and taste do not exist without us – and they are nothing but experience.

There can be no words for the Thing of us – the force if you will – that holds us together because the Thing of us is the whole of us, while words are inherently separating and dividing. A word cannot define something without excluding everything else.

So we line up series of words in the attempt to comprehend who we are, but it is like describing cake as flour, sugar, eggs, and water that have been mixed together and baked.

Yet if we have not words – rules, beliefs, self-identity, rites – we get scared and can fly apart. We rely on descriptions of ourselves to keep us manageable to ourselves, to keep our minds from being blown. And it is okay. We need time, we need safety of belief, we need science for progress, we need to fish, we need to ask about atoms and be satisfied that the words “strong force, weak force, gravity, and magnetism” have meaning and bring order.

The red and white plastic bobbin tells us when there is a fish on our line. With time we bravely move to larger and larger lakes where we employ radar, attempting to penetrate the muck.

Sometimes we even land a fish. Sometimes we even catch a glimpse of why trucks don’t fly apart. On rarest occasion, if we are silent enough, we catch a glimpse of who we are beyond words.