Abraham did not grow like a seedling in the Holy Land – he was called there from the east, from Ur of the Chaldees, in today’s southern Iraq. He inaugurated that most counter-intuitive spectacle in homesteading history: the population of the Jewish homeland. The second megastar in the Biblical story is Moses, but he too was not born in Canaan, but this time in the west, in the land of the Nile. When the Chosen People finally prevail and settle in their destined real estate, it’s not long before most of them are hauled off to Babylon. And later on, they will be driven from home by waves of persecution, or their own misjudgments.
The byword for their later wanderings, the ‘diaspora,’ says it all. Back and forth, east and west, and now all over the world, the Old Testament people actually live in their divinely appointed home for a mere fraction of their history. Even today, less than half the world’s Jews live in Israel, and most of them are only cultural, not religious Jews.
The Birth of Christ is likewise flanked by movements east and west. He has hardly left the womb when his family has to flee west to Egypt, but the danger is brought on by someone from the east. Three mysterious Magi make a quick cameo in the Nativity story, occasion the bloodbath of the Holy Innocents and retreat – but only after leaving as deep a mark and as abiding a mystery in the story as had old Melchisedek. As with him, we are not totally certain where the Magi came from either, what they mean for the story, or whither they disappear after their brief appearance. Melchisedek, an apparent ‘outsider,’ blesses the great founder Abraham,
and the liberator Moses absorbs all the wisdom of Egypt. Similarly, the Wise Men will visit and touch the mystery of the Incarnation long before Christ’s Jewish brethren. In these, as in so many other matters, the story of Christ demands that we pay close attention to the worlds west and east of his troubled homeland – specifically, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and beyond this last, Persia, India and China.
It is easy to forget how deeply Christianity first penetrated eastward, speaking Syriac, Persian and tongues of India and even China, long before it became the established faith of the West. Europe is now in retreat from Christianity, while Africa and the Americas are advancing. Our need today to understand the Eastern traditions, those of India and China as well as the Middle East, is not a mere universalist fancy of our globalized world. It emerges insistently from the geography of the Scriptural narrative.