Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Day Art Changed History: Persian Invasion and Appearance in Bethlehem

The mighty Persian army swept into Palestine-Israel from the north in 614 A.D. They were unstoppable. Not even Jerusalem could stop conquerors in this age. Jerusalem had already been run down a few times before, most notably by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and then by the Romans in 70 A.D. and then by Hadian in the early 2nd century A.D. How then could a mere piece of art in the sleepy town of Bethlehem bring this powerful army to a halt?

It was the mosaic of the Magi on the facade of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, which commemorates the place of the birth of Jesus Christ, who were depicted Persian-like. This church was originally built by Empress Helena in about 339 A.D. Two hundred years later in 549 of 540 A.D., Justinian had the church expanded and remodeled, and had artists do the mosaic then. The artists most probably understood the Magi text in Matthew’s Gospel, the second chapter, that they came from “the east,” to mean Persia.

The Persian army, as they swept down from the north (the main travel route of the Fertile Crescent), destroyed church after church and synagogue after synagogue all the way down to Jerusalem. But then they arrive at Bethlehem’s church, and they gaze and their predecessor star-gazers. They stop and ponder. And the power of this art leads them to stay their hand at destruction, then move on to other towns and cities in Judah.

I went to Israel my first time in the summer of 1992 to take a short term course on the historical and geographical setting of this land. For a lack of a better description, I fell in love with this land. Four years later, I returned as a full-time graduate student to study and work on a masters degree on the ancient history of the land. Field trips were an integral part of the studies.

In addition to the formal studies, there was so much to learn, more places to see and visit, and native people to interact with.

On one such Saturday occasion, a friend and I decided to take another trip up to the Mt. of Olives, this time to visit the Russian Orthodox Church, which though it has a prominent landmark tower, is not a tour bus stop or a stop on our school field trips. We got a personal tour by this Orthodox nun who seemed a bit dark and mysterious. She led us to the inside of the sanctuary and explained how the Persian warriors, when they arrived on their conquering rampage in 614 A.D., over 100 monks and nuns ran into this sanctuary. The Persian warriors came in and slaughtered them. My mind imagined dozens of bodies of monks and nuns laying everywhere, even where our feet were standing. She elaborated that there was a subterranean escape tunnel, but few had made it there. Visualizing the slaughter, it made a real impression on me.

At that time, I had already been on the field trip to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and heard the history from our instructor, including the part where the Persian army refrained their hand and did not destroy that church after seeing the mosaic on its facade. The contrast between these two events seemed to be so stark though just six miles apart. Where I was standing at that moment, there was a slaughter, and blood was probably everywhere. But six miles to the south in the more sleepy Bethlehem, there was a strange peace and stillness.

Every civilized continent in the world has its fields where battles were fought, blood was shed, and where thousands have lost their lives in warfare. Every continent has its cities were conquerors have rode, stomped, or blasted their way in. With superior power of weaponry and strategy, they were virtually unstoppable. But there was one such event in which an invading conqueror enters a town, and was stopped by an unlikely source: an image of religious artwork decorating a building. The physical resemblance that the Magi had compared to themselves no doubt led to their initially stopping in their tracks in front of the church. But then, I believe, came a moment of silence and ponder for the Persian army, and deeper, noble, and spiritual dimensions arose from this encounter that may only be recorded in God’s heavenly book.

As the Magi came to ponder the birth of Christ, according to tradition, and as the mighty Persian army stopped, pondered, and refrained their destroying hand, due to the art of the Magi, may we ponder the deeper significance of this event. May we see the power that art can bring, the spiritual aspect of art that can even stop conquerors, the higher and greater purposes of art represented by the royal Magi who out of their goodness traveled hundreds of miles to bear gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and in the words of Matthew’s Gospel, to “worship.”