Commentaries on the
History, Philosophy, and Symbolism
of the Degree of
MOST EXCELLENT MASTER.
Excerpted from pages 63 – 89 of
by Albert G. Mackey
“The ever-memorable occasion of the dedication of the temple is celebrated in our lodges. It is the groundwork of one of its most beautiful degrees. It has been celebrated for thousands of generations, and is hallowed in the memory of the craft.”
The sixth degree, or that of Most Excellent Master, is as intimately connected with the third or Master Mason's as the Mark Master's is with that of the Fellow Craft. The Master Mason's degree is intended, in its symbolic design, to teach the doctrines of the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. But this corruption can only put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality by a passage through the portals of the grave. And here the degree of Most Excellent Master comes forward with its beautiful symbolism, to represent the man prepared to enter upon that eventful passage. In the preceding degrees the duties of life have been delineated under various types—the virtuous craftsman has been assiduously laboring to erect within his heart a spiritual temple of holiness, fit for the habitation of Him who is the holiest of beings. If the moral and religious precepts of the order have been observed, stone has been placed upon stone—virtue has been added to virtue—and the duties of one day have been scrupulously performed, only that the duties of the next may be commenced with equal zeal.
And now all is accomplished—the spiritual edifice which it was given to man to erect—that “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”—upon the construction of which he has been engaged, day by day and hour by hour, from his first entrance into the world—has become a stately and finished building, and there remains no more to be done, save to place the cape-stone, DEATH, upon its summit.
This—the last condition of man on earth, when all his labors have been completed—when he is about to lay aside for ever all his projects of ambition, of pleasure, or of business—to dissolve the ties which have bound hint to the companions of his toils, and to go forth a wanderer on the unknown shores of eternity—to abandon, as useless, the implements of this world's work, and to leave the temple of life—is the solemn scene which is symbolically commemorated in the impressive ceremonies of the Most Excellent Master's degree.
The legend or tradition upon which the degree of Most Excellent Master is founded, is thus recorded in the Book of Constitutions:
“The temple was finished in the short space of seven years and six months, to the amazement of all the world; when the cape-stone was celebrated by the fraternity with great joy. But their joy was soon interrupted by the sudden death of their dear master, Hiram Abif, whom they decently interred in the lodge near the temple, according to ancient usage.
“After Hiram Abif was mourned for, the tabernacle of Moses and its holy relics being lodged in the temple, Solomon, in a general assembly, dedicated or consecrated it by solemn prayer and costly sacrifices past number, with the finest music, vocal and instrumental, praising Jehovah, upon fixing the holy ark in its proper place between the cherubim; when Jehovah filled his own temple with a cloud of glory.” [Anderson, James. Constitutions of the Free and Accepted Masons, edit. 1738. p. 14.]
The ceremonies commemorated in this degree, refer, therefore, to the completion and dedication of the temple. It is reasonable to suppose that, when this magnificent edifice was completed, King Solomon should bestow some distinguished mark of his approval upon the skillful and zealous builders who had been engaged for seven years in its construction. No greater token of that approbation could have been evinced than to establish an order of merit, with the honorable appellation of “Most Excellent Masters,” and to bestow it upon those of the craftsmen who had proved themselves to be complete masters of their profession. It was not conferred upon the whole body of the workmen but was confined, as Webb remarks, to the meritorious and praiseworthy—to those who, through diligence and industry, had progressed far toward perfection. Such is the traditional history of the origin of the degree. And it is still retained as a memorial of the method adopted by the wise King of Israel to distinguish the most faithful and skillful portion of his builders, and to reward them for their services by receiving and acknowledging them as Most Excellent Masters, at the completion and dedication of the temple.
THE TEMPLE OF SOLOMON.
As this degree refers to that important period when the temple erected by King Solomon for the worship of Jehovah was completed, and presented in all its glory and beauty to an admiring people, it is proper that the masonic student should here receive some brief details of this magnificent structure.
Mount Moriah, on which the foundations of the temple were laid, was a lofty hill, situated almost in the very northeast corner of the city of Jerusalem, having Mount Zion on the south-west, with the city of David and the king's palace on its summit, and Mount Acra on the west, whereon the lower city was built.
The summit of the mountain on which the temple was built, which, although not very high, was exceedingly steep, occupied a square of five hundred cubits, or two hundred and fifty yards on each side, being encompassed by a stone wall one thousand yards in extent, and twelve yards and a half high.
King Solomon commenced the erection of the temple on the second day of the Hebrew month Zif, in the year of the world 2992, which date corresponds to Monday, the first of April, 1012 years before the Christian era.
The foundations were laid at a profound depth, and consisted, as Josephus informs us, of stones of immense size and great durability. They were closely mortised into the rock, so as to form a secure basis for the superincumbent structure.
The building does not appear to have been so remarkable for its magnitude as for the magnificence of its ornaments and the value of its materials. Lightfoot gives us the best idea of its size and form when he says that the porch was one hundred and twenty cubits, or two hundred and ten feet high and that the rest of the building was in height but thirty cubits, or fifty-two feet and a half, so that the form of the whole house was thus: It was situated due east and west, the holy of holies being to the westward, and the porch or entrance toward the east. The whole length from east to west, was seventy cubits, or one hundred and twenty-two feet and a half. The breadth, exclusive of the side chambers, was twenty cubits, or thirty-five feet; the height of the holy place and the holy of holies was thirty cubits, or fifty-two feet and a half, and the porch stood at the eastern end, like a lofty steeple, one hundred and twenty cubits, or two hundred and ten feet high. In fact, as Lightfoot remarks, the temple much resembled a modem church, with this difference, that the steeple which was placed over the porch was situated at the east end. [Lightfoot's “Prospect of the Temple,” opp. vol. ix., p. 247. The engraving here given is taken from Samuel Lee's “Orbis Miraculum,” a rare and valuable description of the temple of Solomon. It gives a rude but accurate idea of the form of the body of the temple.]
Around the north and south sides and the west end were built chambers of three stories, each story being five cubits in height, or fifteen cubits, twenty-six feet nine inches in all—and these were united to the outside wall of the house.
The windows, which were used for ventilation rather than for light, which was derived from the sacred candlesticks, were placed in the wall of the temple that was above the roof of the side chambers. But that part which included the holy of holies was without any aperture whatever, to which Solomon alludes in the passage, “The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness.”
The temple was divided, internally, into three parts—the porch, the sanctuary, and the holy of holies; the breadth of all these was of course the same, namely, twenty cubits, or thirty-five feet, but they differed in length. The porch was seventeen feet six inches in length, the sanctuary seventy feet, and the holy of holies thirty-five, or, in the Hebrew measure, ten, forty, and twenty cubits. The entrance from the porch into the sanctuary was through a wide door of olive posts and leaves of fir; but the door between the sanctuary and the holy of holies was composed entirely of olive wood. These doors were always open, and the aperture closed by a suspended curtain. The partition between the sanctuary and the holy of holies partly consisted of an open network, so that the incense daily offered in the former place might be diffused through the interstices into the latter.
In the sanctuary were placed the golden candlestick, the table of shew tread, and the altar of incense. The holy of holies contained nothing but the ark of the covenant, which included the tables of the law.
The framework of the temple consisted of massive stone, but it was wainscoted with cedar, which was covered with gold. The boards within the temple were ornamented with carved work, skillfully representing cherubim, palm leaves and flowers. The ceiling of the temple was supported by beams of cedar wood, which, with that used in the wainscoting, was supplied by the workmen of Hiram, King of Tyre, from the forest of Lebanon. The floor was throughout made of cedar, but boarded over with planks of fir.
The temple, thus constructed, was surrounded by various courts and high walls, and thus occupied the entire summit of Mount Moriah. The first of the Courts was the court of the Gentiles, beyond which Gentiles were prohibited from passing. Within this, and separated from it by a low wall, was the Court of the Children of Israel, and inside of that, separated from it by another wall, was the Court of the Priests, in which was placed the altar of burnt offerings. From this court there was an ascent of twelve steps to the porch of the temple, before which stood the two pillars of' Jachin and Boaz.
For the erection of this magnificent structure, besides the sums annually appropriated by Solomon, his father, David, had left one hundred thousand talents of gold, and a million talents of silver, equal to nearly four thousand millions of dollars. [According to the accurate tables of Arbuthnot, reduced to Federal currency. a talent of gold is equal to $24,309.00, and a talent of silver to $1,505.625. Hence, a hundred thousand talents of gold—$2,430,900,000. and a million talents—$1,505,625,000, and the whole—$3,936,525,000, the exact amount of gold and silver left by David for building the temple.]
The time occupied in its construction was seven years and about six months, and it was finished in the month Bul, in the year of the world 3000, corresponding to October, 1004, of the vulgar era. The year after, it was dedicated with those solemn ceremonies which are alluded to in this degree. The dedicatory ceremonies commenced on Friday, the 30th of October, and lasted for fourteen days, terminating on Thursday, the 12th of November, although the people were not dismissed until the following Saturday. Seven days of this festival were devoted to the dedication exclusively, and the remaining seven to the Feast of Tabernacles which followed. The eighth chapter of the First Book of Kings contains an account of the solemnities of the occasion, and to that the reader is referred.
THE DEDICATION OF THE TEMPLE.
The celebration of the cape-stone is a phrase which really signifies the dedication of the temple, the ceremonies if which are commemorated in this degree.
A dedication is defined to be a religious ceremony, whereby anything is dedicated or consecrated to the service of God. It appears, says Kitto, to have originated in the desire to commence, with peculiar solemnity, the practical use and application of whatever had been set apart to the Divine service. Thus Moses dedicated the tabernacle in the wilderness; Solomon his temple; the returned exiles theirs, and Herod his.
Not only, says the same author, were sacred places thus dedicated, but some kind of dedicatory solemnity was observed with respect to cities, walls, gates, and even private houses. We may trace the continuance of these usages in the custom of consecrating or dedicating churches and chapels, and in the ceremonies connected with the opening of roads, markets, bridges, &c. and with the launching of ships. [Kitto's Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature.]
LODGE OF MOST EXCELLENT MASTERS.
The symbolic color of the Most Excellent Master's degree is purple. The apron is of white lambskin, edged with purple. The collar is of purple, edged with gold. But, as lodges of this degree are held under warrants of Royal Arch Chapters, the collars, aprons and jewels of the Chapter are generally made use of in conferring the degree.
Lodges of Most Excellent Masters are “dedicated to King Solomon.”
A candidate receiving this degree is said to be “received and acknowledged as a Most Excellent Master.” This alludes to the reception into the degree by King Solomon, and his acknowledgment of the skill and merits of those upon whom, at the completion and dedication of the temple, he is said to have originally conferred it.
SCRIPTURE READING AT THE OPENING OF A LODGE OF MOST EXCELLENT MASTERS.
The following Psalm is read at the opening:
“The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob: Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty; the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory.” — Psalms 24:1-10.
This Psalm is peculiarly appropriate to the opening ceremonies of the Most Excellent Master's degree. One of the most important events referred to in this degree is the bringing forth of the ark of the covenant “with shouting and praise,” and depositing it in the holy of holies, which was done at the dedication of the temple by King Solomon. So the twenty-fourth Psalm was originally composed and sung when David brought up the ark, with great pomp and procession, from the house of Obed-edom, and placed it in the tabernacle on Mount Zion. The two events were analogous, and hence the appropriateness of selecting the sacred song used on the one occasion as a preface to the ceremonies of a degree which commemorates the other.
The following Psalm is read during the ceremony of reception:
“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together. Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord. For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.” — Psalms 122:1-9.
A MOST EXCELLENT MASTER.
The Hebrews had three titles of honor, each differing from the other in degree, which they bestowed upon their teachers and eminent men, and which Kitto compares to the modern collegiate designations of Bachelor, Master and Doctor:
1. Rab, which signified a great one, a chief, a master.
2. Rabbi, which, by the addition of the suffix i to the former, literally denotes “my master,” but, as a title of higher dignity, may be said to signify “an Excellent Master.”
3. Rabboni, “my great master,” from raban, a great master, still higher than rabbi, and to be translated most appropriately as “a Most Excellent Master.”
This was the title given in John 20:16, by Mary to the Saviour: “She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni.”
Hoffman says, in the Chronicles of Cartaphilus, that Rabboni imports a higher title of respect than Rab or Rabbi, and confers the highest possible distinction in respect to wisdom and learning—so much so, that it is said to be conceded only to seven persons recorded in all Jewish history.
THE QUEEN OF SHEBA.
The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon is recorded in the tenth chapter of the First Book of Kings, where we are told that “when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions;” and we are further informed that when she “had seen all Solomon's wisdom and the house that he built, there was no spirit in her,” which expression Dr. Clarke properly interprets as meaning that “she was overpowered with astonishment.”
The masonic legend coincides with this account, although there are one or two circumstances detailed in the tradition which have not been preserved in the written record.
According to the masonic tradition, we learn that the wide-spread reputation of King Solomon induced the Queen of Sheba, a country supposed by most commentators to be situated in the southern part of Arabia, to visit Jerusalem, and inspect the celebrated works of which she had heard so many encomiums. And we are informed that when she first beheld the magnificent edifice, which glittered with gold, and seemed, from the nice adjustments and exact accuracy of all its joints, to be composed of but a single piece of marble, she raised her eyes and hands in an attitude of admiration, and exclaimed, “Rabboni,” which, being interpreted, means “a Most Excellent Master.”
According to the received Bible chronology, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon took place thirteen years after the dedication of the temple, and objection has hence been made to any allusion to her in the ceremonies which refer to that dedication. But the objection is an unreasonable one, and is founded on an erroneous view of the nature of masonic degrees. The ceremonies of the degree, as we now have them, are not to be supposed to be the invention of King Solomon, or to have been known in his day. They are but a memorial, subsequently established, (at what later period we know not,) of the events which occurred at the temple. The Queen of Sheba, if Scripture record is to be believed, must have expressed her admiration of the temple when she first beheld it, though many years after its completion; and it is allowable that that admiration should be afterwards referred to when the memorial ceremonies were adopted, and that it should even supply the basis of a means of recognition, which it is by no means necessary to believe was contemporary with the dedication. In all such cases, it must be remembered that all masonic degrees are but memorial ceremonies of the events which actually occurred at the temple, and which, by means of these subsequently adopted ceremonies, have been orally handed down to the craft. This rational theory will meet all such objections as the allusion to the Queen of Sheba in this degree, the use of a New Testament parable in the Mark Master's, or the reading of a passage from Ecclesiastes in the Master Mason's. By this theory these apparent anachronisms are easily explained, and they cannot be otherwise.
THE DAY SET APART FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE CAPE-STONE OF THE TEMPLE.
The CAPE-STONE, or, as it would more correctly be called, the cope-stone, (but the former word has been consecrated to us by universal masonic usage,) is the topmost stone of a building. To bring it forth, therefore, and to place it in its destined position, is significative that the building is completed, which event is celebrated, even by the operative masons of the present day, with great signs of rejoicing. Flags are hoisted on the top of every edifice by the builders engaged in its construction, as soon as they have reached the topmost post, and thus finished their labors. This is the “celebration of the cape-stone”—the celebration of the completion of the building—when their tools are laid aside, and rest and refreshment succeed for a time to labor. This is the event in the history of the temple which is commemorated in this degree. The day set apart for the celebration of the cape-stone of the temple, is the day devoted to rejoicing and thanksgiving for the completion of that glorious structure.
Masonic teachers have not agreed in determining what was the particular stone referred to in this degree. A few suppose it to have represented the last and highest stone placed in the temple. If this were the case, the Mark Master's keystone would be very improperly made use of on this occasion, for it by no means represents the highest stone of the temple. A majority of scholars have, however, adopted the more consistent theory that the keystone was appropriately used in this degree, and that it was deposited on the day cf the completion of the temple in the place for which it was intended, all of which relates to a mystery not unfolded in this degree, but reserved for that of Select Master. In either case it was a cape-stone—in one, the cape-stone of the whole, temple; in the other, only of an important part of it.
In my own recollection, a promise of secrecy was exacted of all Most Excellent Masters respecting the place where the keystone was deposited, and, although this usage has now very generally been abandoned, I have the most satisfactory reasons for knowing that such a promise constituted a part of the original OB. of the degree.
BRINGING FORTH THE ARK OF THE COVENANT WITH SHOUTING AND PRAISE.
Previous to the building of the temple, David had brought the ark of the covenant from the house of Obed-edom to his palace on Mount Zion, where it remained until the temple was completed.
As soon as Solomon had finished his work, he assembled the people, with their rulers and elders, at Jerusalem, that they might dedicate it with appropriate ceremonies. The ark was then taken from the palace of David and removed to the temple. The king himself and all the people and Levites went before, rendering the ground moist, says Josephus, with sacrifices and drink offerings, and the blood of a great number of oblations, and burning an immense quantity of incense, and thus with singing and dancing was it carried into the temple. But when it was to be transferred to the holy of holies, the rest of the multitude departed, and only those priests who bore it by its staves entered within the sacred place, and set it between the two cherubim, which, embracing it between their wings, covered it as with a dome.
It is this bringing of the ark into the temple with shouting and praise, and depositing it in the holy spot where it was thenceforth to remain, that is commemorated by a portion of the ceremonies of the Most Excellent Master's degree.
PRAYER OF SOLOMON.
The following, which is a portion of the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the temple, may be used during this part of the ceremony:
And now, O God of Israel, let thy word, I pray thee, be verified, which thou spakest unto thy servant David, my father. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built. Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer which thy servant prayeth before thee to-day: that thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there: that thou mayest hearken unto the prayer which thy servant shall make toward this place. And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people, Israel, when they shall pray toward this place; and hear thou in heaven, thy dwelling-place; and when thou hearest, forgive. So mote it be. Amen.
The following is read with solemn ceremonies:
“Now when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And the priest could not enter into the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord's house.
“And when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshiped, and praised the Lord, saying, For He is good; for His mercy endureth for ever.” — 2 Chronicles 7:1-3.
THE FIRE FROM HEAVEN.
The following passages from Bro. Scott's “Analogy,” may be advantageously read by the masonic student in reference to this period of the ceremonies:
“It was when Solomon had made an end of praying, that the fire came down from heaven; but it was before the fire came down that the cloud of God's glory descended, and that the Almighty was made manifest in the sanctum sanctorum. It was on the day of dedication, and the year of dedication was a jubilee. The silver trumpets had ushered it in amidst the rejoicing of all the people. The elders of Israel had been assembled in the devoted city of Jerusalem. Solomon had summoned them to meet together for a holy purpose. The stately temple was completed. It towered in all its grandeur. It was the wonder and admiration of the world. The craftsmen were all present at the dedication.
They had no more occasion for level or plumb-line,
For trowel or gavel, for compass or square.
“Their work was all finished, and the ark of the covenant was about to be brought up 'out of the city of David, which is Zion.' How sublime and surpassingly grand were the ceremonies of dedication. 'And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests took up the ark.' And the tabernacle was carried up also, and all the holy vessels that were in it. Then the sacrifices commenced. All the congregation of Israel took part in the ceremonies. The sheep and the oxen to be sacrificed were numberless. When the ark was borne into 'the oracle of the house, to the most holy place,' the cherubim spread forth their wings over the place and covered the ark and the staves thereof. And when it was safely seated, Almighty Jehovah descended and filled the house with his glory. Yes, the Lord was visible there; and well might the wisest of men, in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, pour out a fervent and most eloquent prayer to Him for his multiplied blessings. What a mighty assembly had gathered together! The Lord of heaven and earth was there. And never before had such eloquence fallen from the lips of Solomon. His prayer is a specimen of true devotion, and of what a wise man can do and say, 'when out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.'
“That ever memorable occasion is celebrated in our lodges. It is the ground-work of one of its most beautiful degrees. It has been celebrated for thousands of generations, and is hallowed in the memory of the craft. And may we not, with propriety, say that the splendid and eloquent prayer of our Grand Master, although it is not expressly incorporated into the regular body of masonry, constitutes, by implication, a portion of our institution? If we are correct in the opinion that our order was perfected at the completion of the temple, or even established after that period, but associated with the progress of that building and dedication, then we may very reasonably contend that every rite or event connected with it affords a subject for masonic study and investigation.” [Scott, Charles. Analogy of Ancient Craft Masonry to Natural and Revealed Religion. pp. 217-220.]
There is also an eloquent description of the scene commemorated in this degree in Dr. Jarvis's Church of the Redeemed, vol. I, pp. 166-168, which the masonic student may read with advantage and pleasure.
THE RECEPTION AND ACKNOWLEDGMENT.
Masonic tradition informs us that when the temple had been completed and dedicated, and the cape-stone celebrated, King Solomon received and acknowledged the most expert of the craftsmen as Most Excellent Masters; he invested them with power to travel into foreign countries in search of employment, and charged them to dispense light and truth to all uninformed brethren; but to those who chose to remain he furnished employment in keeping the temple in repair.
CHARGE TO THE NEW MOST EXCELLENT MASTER.
Brother: Your admittance to this degree of masonry is a proof of the good opinion the brethren of this lodge entertain of your masonic abilities. Let this consideration induce you to be careful of forfeiting, by misconduct and inattention to our rules, that esteem which has raised you to the rank you now possess.
It is one of your great duties as a Most Excellent Master, to dispense light and truth to the uninformed mason; and I need not remind you of the impossibility of complying with this obligation, without possessing an accurate acquaintance with the lectures of each degree.
If you are not already completely conversant in all the degrees. heretofore conferred on you, remember, that an indulgence, prompted by a belief that you will apply yourself with double diligence to make yourself so, has induced the brethren to accept you.
Let it therefore be your unremitting study to acquire such a degree of knowledge and information as shall enable you to discharge with propriety the various duties incumbent on you, and to preserve unsullied, the title now conferred upon you, of a Most Excellent Master.
SCRIPTURE READING AT THE CLOSING OF A LODGE OF MOST EXCELLENT MASTERS.
The following is read at closing:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” — Psalms 23:1-6.
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