Sunday 15 October 2023

(Not Quite) 80 Gays Around the World: Part 5) Monks, Monarchs and Myrrh

Last time on (Not Quite) 80 Gays: The Art Workshop International was founded by 12) Bea Kreloff (1925-2016) and 13) Edith Isaac Rose (1929-2018) in Assisi, a city famous as the home of 14) St. Francis of Assisi (c.1187-1226), founder of the Franciscan order of friars who, in 2022, elected its first openly gay “bishop” 15) Markus Fuhrmann (b.1971).

There are two points I need to clear up. First, despite the title, friars are not monks. Basically, monks keep themselves to themselves in a monastery, while friars go out and minister among the outside community. I thought “monks” worked better in the title than “friars”.

Second, the Franciscan order of friars does not have bishops. That is the term I used because it is the most recognisable term used for someone of a comparable position in other Christian churches. Technically, all Franciscan friars are of equal position. Those elected to take overall charge of the affairs of the global Franciscan order (like an archbishop under the ultimate authority of the Pope) is called the Minister General. The world is divided into provinces (the equivalent of dioceses), and the friar elected to oversee each province is called a Minister Provincial (the equivalent of a bishop).

In June 2022, members of the chapter of the province of St. Elizabeth, the German “diocese”, gathered in Ohrbeck near Osnabruck to, amongst other things, elect their new Minister Provincial in succession to Father Cornelius Bohd, who had served his full term of office. The chapter elected 15) Father Markus Fuhrmann (b.1971). Just a few weeks beforehand he had come out as gay.

I wrote about the Franciscan stance on homosexuality last time on “80 Gays”. The issue of homosexuality in the Catholic Church was among several issues discussed in the Synodale Weg, or Synodal Way, a series of conferences held between 2019 and 2023 by the Catholic Church in Germany. Father Markus had always been a supporter of the Synodal Way and of changing some of the Church’s antiquated and corrupt practices, as was his predecessor. Needless to say, the Synodal Way attracted a lot of criticism from within and outside the Catholic Church in Germany.

Official logo the Synodal Way

During all of this controversy Father Markus came out as gay. He was not just an ordinary friar at the time. He was the Vicar Provincial (the next level down from a Minister Provincial) to his predecessor. Just as there was criticism about aspects of the Synodal Way, so there was criticism of Father Markus’s election. The fact that the province of St. Elizabeth elected an openly gay man as their guiding minister must mean that there is a change beginning to happen in the Catholic Church, at least in Germany.

Father Markus is the third Minister Provincial of St. Elizabeth Province. The province itself is relatively new, having been formed by the merger in 2010 of several smaller provinces. Prior to this, Father Markus was a pastor to the homeless in Cologne, the city at the centre of one of the former smaller provinces, the Province of Cologne and the Three Kings.

There’s a Christmas connection here. The Three Kings refer to those in the Bible story of the birth of Christ. But what are they doing in Cologne, you might be asking? The short story is that Cologne cathedral houses their reputed remains. They were brought there by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from Milan. Before Milan they were in Constantinople, having been taken there by Emperor Constantine the Great’s mother in the 4th century. She had found them in the Holy Land. No-one today really believes they are genuine, but they help to focus the faith of devout Christians.

I’ve written before about the Three Kings. In my Advent series in 2019 I mentioned how modern scholarship is beginning to look at the Three Kings in a historical context. The earliest translations of the Bible didn’t refer to them as kings. This is a rank assigned to them in the Middles Ages to emphasise their status as important representatives from their countries, and because of several prophecies in the Old Testament.

It is speculated that the kings were in fact priests or astrologers. Taking into account that they are said to have come from “the east” suggests that they came from the areas now covered by Iran, Iraq and Syria. During the time of the birth of Christ these areas predominantly practised the Zoroastrian faith. It is widely believed that their priests were most often either androgynous, intersex, transgender or eunuch.

So, the Three Kings weren’t kings. We don’t know their names either. People of the middle ages liked to give names to anonymous characters in the Bible (such as Simeon Bachos). We still do it. We give names to things that don’t have them (children, genders, nations, inventions, animals, asteroids, etc.). Over the centuries the Three Kings have been given many names. Different early church communities gave different names, and some even said there were more than three kings. So, if other churches had been more influential we may be calling the kings by names such as Eshtanbozon, Zual, or Walastar.

The names that we are more familiar with today first appeared in the 6th century in a famous mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. There, above images of the kings, are versions of the names which became the most universal – 15) Caspar, 16) Melchoir) and 17) Balthasar. Another reason why we assume there were three of them is because they brought three gifts, one each – gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Two of these gifts puzzled me as a child. They probably puzzled you as well. Gold is obvious, a precious gift. But what about the others? Frankincense is just incense, also a precious substance at the time and often presented to kings.

We can’t tell much about myrrh from its name, unless you know that is a resinous substance obtained from a thorny tree of the same name. It is used as a perfume, but also in embalming. Its significance as a gift to Christ is to represent His mortality as the only part of the Holy Trinity who could actually die.

The name myrrh is of Semetic origin and means “bitter”. It entered other eastern nations and languages, including ancient Greece. There a myth was created to explain the myrrh tree’s origin. It tells of a girl called Myrrha who fell in love with her father and tricked him into having sex with her, resulting in her pregnancy. Myrrha became remorseful and went into self-imposed exile. She begged the gods to help her out of her situation and they turned her into the tree that bears her name. As for the unborn child, the gods decided to release the child from the tree. This child grew up to be associated with sex, beauty, and fertility and have various gender-fluid relationships. His name was 19) Adonis.

Next time on (Not Quite) 80 Gays: We step into a garden and play some games.

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