The New Testament tells us a surprising thing, right at the beginning of the story of Christ (Matthew 1:18-2:12). It tells us that three wise men — Magi— followed a star to Bethlehem where they found the newborn Jesus. In order to do so, they had to first pay a courtesy visit to Herod, the governor of Palestine, who then ordered the massacre of all firstborn Jewish males in order to ensure he killed the newborn Jesus and thus prevent the young Messiah’s ever taking power.
The Massacre of the Innocents is not a story that is usually told at Christmas. We see the Magi — whom tradition has named Melchior, Balthazar, and Casper — bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and sometimes we are told that they are three “kings.”
They could not be kings in the normal sense, as they did not travel with a large retinue but seemed to make the journey (from the “East”) with a few possessions and perhaps a few servants but nothing more. We are not told what kingdoms they represented. We are told very little, actually, and at the end of their visit to the manger they make their departure secretly, avoiding Herod and his intrigues.
These three kings are an anomaly in the story of Jesus. It only appears in the Gospel, according to Matthew, and not in any of the other Gospels. There does not seem to be a precedent for this in other Jewish traditional literature, since these kings were obviously not Jewish but foreigners who came from a land to the east of Palestine; Persia, perhaps, or Babylon.
That they followed a star is evidence of their ability in astronomy but also their belief in astrology, because for them the appearance of the Star in the East had meaning. Astronomers — like all scientists — do not deal in meaning, but in phenomena. Astrology — like the other occult sciences — is an attempt to assign meaning to phenomena.
While astrology may be considered divination and therefore something proscribed by Jewish tradition and law, there is evidence that the Jews did practice a form of astrology themselves. The Bible is full of references to “signs in the heavens,” which could mean anything from the appearance of comets to the more familiar conjunctions and oppositions of astrological lore.
In either case, “signs in the heavens” indicates that the motions of the heavenly bodies were considered meaningful: messages to the denizens of the earth from spiritual forces capable of communicating with humans using the very broad canvas of the heavens themselves.
The Bible has other tales of the occult, sprinkled here and there throughout the Old and New Testaments, but usually with words of opprobrium.
There is the famous tale of the Witch of Endor, who caused the ghost of Samuel to appear to King Saul on the eve of battle (Samuel 28:4- 25). There is the injunction against the occult in the commandment: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22:18). And there is Jesus himself raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1–44), and performing exorcisms and doing other miraculous things which, if they were performed by any person today, would be considered witchcraft, magic, or demonstrations of occult powers.
Thus, the Christian Scriptures attest the Church’s occult foundations. In the Gospel according to Luke we see Jesus saying, “Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you,” thus implying the power of His followers over all the spiritual realms (Luke 10:20).
Before Jesus begins his ministry, Satan tempts him in the desert, demonstrating his power over the material worlds; and, in another episode, Jesus himself turns to St. Peter and tells him, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). Oddly, Catholic tradition has it that St. Peter was crucified upside down; today, the inverted cross has become a symbol of Satanism.
While Catholic priests are believed to have spiritual power over ghosts and demons — every Catholic priest has been ordained first as an exorcist — the use of occult powers has usually been considered closed to the priesthood and to laypeople alike. The only ones using occultism and magic have been the heretics, the blasphemers, the so-called witches and sorcerers: people who are, by their very nature, believed to be on the side of the Adversary and opponents of the Church.
Indeed, in the eighteenth-century, this general indictment of occultism, occult groups, and secret societies was extended to include the Freemasons. For centuries, it was forbidden for Catholics to join the Masons, and for good reason: during the heyday of the Order in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, the Freemasons were actively involved in efforts to curtail the Church’s secular power in Europe, from the Carbonari in Italy to the revolutionists in France, up to and including Masonic intrigues against British imperial power in India.
Even as late as the 1970s, a Masonic lodge calling itself Propaganda Due or P2 was at the heart of the Vatican banking scandal in Italy. P2 was also involved in anti-communist intrigues, including assassinations, in the rest of the world.
But was the Church itself entirely blameless when it came to conjuring demons, working magic, and casting spells? It is rumoured that the largest collection of occult works in the world is to be found at the Vatican library. Are they there as curios, rare and valuable tomes to be consulted by Catholic scholars carefully vetted by the Holy See? Or did they once have a more utilitarian purpose?
Included in this book is one of the more infamous grimoires —or magical workbooks — known to three centuries of ceremonial magicians throughout the Western world. Considered by some to be the most demonic of all occult texts, its authorship is attributed to a Pope.
While scholars contend that the Pope in question had nothing to do with it, they miss the most important point of the text: that it is a manual to be used by a Catholic priest. And therein lies a tale.
For the first three hundred years of Christianity, the Church met in secret. It is well known that Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire — the image of the followers of Christ being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum is familiar to every schoolchild. Thus, in order to worship in safety, these early Christians met at night in cemeteries and catacombs.
Today, if we came across news of a religious cult meeting, under those circumstances, we would immediately think of “satanism” or “devil worship” or even “witchcraft.”