I can’t stop thinking about the Epiphany this week, as I — like the Magi — seek to find Jesus. The English poet T.S. Eliot imagined how those traveling kings might have looked back on their experience, years later. His poem is worth reading several times to catch the references in the second stanza:
The Journey of the Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I love the way Eliot blends Birth and Passion into one journey, one manifestation of Christ. “I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different.” No wonder voices sing in his ears, saying his search is all folly. I hear those voices, too. This “king” who isn’t recognized by the leaders, who looks more like a pauper; a well-meaning dupe who was horribly killed. This “God” who allows bad things to happen. How can he be loving yet condemn groups of people? The voices pour from the tv and radio, they tell me to lay off my search. To follow my own star, ignore the one in the heavens.
I am glad for the example of the magi. Notice how human wisdom, God’s word, action, and the Spirit all work together to help them find the Lord:
- They start with their own wisdom. They are gentiles who notice a star, use their art to determine it announces the birth of a foreign king, and travel to the most likely place to find him: the royal city. But earthly wisdom only takes them so far. Jerusalem is not the place. Those they ask about Jesus are “troubled”; no doubt they think the kings are misguided.
- Jerusalem may not be the goal, but it is there the magi hear the word of God: a prophecy that the child is to be born in Bethlehem.
- It’s not enough just to know God’s word: the priests, for example, know it but do nothing. Still, the magi set out for Bethlehem. No doubt those who know, laugh or try to dissuade them. No one else bothers to go.
- When the magi step out in faith, they are rewarded by heavenly guidance: the star they saw in the East appears and guides them to the child, whom they worship and honor with gifts.
In this new year – may we not stop at following our own stars, but walk according to God’s word even when we don’t understand it; and may the “star” of his Spirit light our way to Christ as we take him the gifts of our lives.
© 2016 Sarah Christmyer
You may also like this post I wrote for The Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study blog: Epiphany: Finding Christ After Christmas