For many a season now I have read T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” expecting it would bring deeper meaning to the Epiphany.
The truth is, though, that while I referred to it 9 years ago now in On Magi and Journeys, many years it has fallen a bit flat for me, this one’s particular rendering of an event which has long captured our collective imaginations. (Even in 2012 it feels as though I could acknowledge the truth of what Eliot was getting at, but in nowhere near the depth that I do today.)
Perhaps it is so that we mostly prefer the children’s version of this ancient story, my own personal recent favorite being found here: First Lutheran Church’s Children’s Christmas Pageant this year. And while I would not trade the sound of children’s voices narrating this momentous event nor the image of the smallest magi being redirected by her older brother to follow the star across a now barren Illinois corn field (again as seen in the version here), somehow the powerful words offered by Eliot broke through for me in a deeper way this year. For while none of what he describes is found anywhere in Matthew’s Gospel (except the fact that they traveled and arrived in Bethlehem and encountered a birth), the experience of this encounter’s life altering significance is somehow more real than ever to me now: this truth that with every birth, there is also always death of one sort or another.
Especially when it comes to the experience of growing in faith. Particularly as we measure that faith against what we experience and witness in the world and wonder at how we are called now to respond.
And no doubt, as it may surely have been for those who traveled so far to Bethlehem with their gifts fit for royalty.
And so it is that these are the questions I approach the Epiphany with this year:
- What was it those magi saw in the night sky that compelled them to journey so far? And was it that compels us to do the same — whether in actuality packing our bags and going somewhere, or in the seemingly smaller (but in actuality not small at all) steps we take to go deeper in understanding and in faith at our own desks, in our own neighborhoods, in our own communities? What is it that nudges, that urges us along?
What does it mean that right here at the start we cannot avoid the truth that the birth of Jesus is set over and against the powers of this world? What does this ‘epiphany’ teach us even now? How are followers of Jesus always also ‘over and against’ the powers of this world today? And what does that mean for our living?
- Indeed, what must it have been for the magi to first be called to Herod’s court? Certainly, their long-earned wisdom taught them that this ruler was not to be trusted, to be sure, but what encountered and took hold of them in the presence of the child of Mary that compelled them to ‘go home by another road?”
No, the magi could not change the terrible structures of the world which led to the deaths of so many innocents, but they could save this one — giving time to Mary and Joseph to carry this promised one to safety.
- And this, this most of all as I consider this familiar story alongside Eliot’s take on it so many years ago. How might the magi have been changed — never to be the same again — following this meeting with God’s Beloved Son? And what was it in their encounter then that never let them go?
Was it that the birth of one so humble would be foretold in the stars themselves? That the world in all of its brokenness would finally turn on one such as this? Was it the utter paradox of this which might just have had them never seeing the world the same again and thus left utterly dissatisfied with the world as it was and is?
- And was this reinforced by their own having traveled so far, by their own near brush with evil itself, by their own taking the smallest of steps (but traveling, no doubt, a far distance to do so next) in going home ‘by another road’ which embedded all of this in the deepest, truest parts of who they were so that they might never live in the world ‘as is’ with the comfort they once did? For isn’t this always how faith is formed and reformed, shaped and shaped again, deepening each time along the way?
Yes, the child born and laid in a manger came both with and without our asking. Yet, being encountered by this one sent from God’s own heart changes the one so called. Both as we are compelled to move towards the One so humbly born and as we move back into our lives, measuring our next steps in relationship to the powers of this world which too often hoard power and all that it means and brutally take life in order to maintain a status quo which benefits far too few.
I don’t know if the words of T.S. Eliot ‘preach’ alongside these familiar words from Matthew’s Gospel. I do know that you and I have been through (and continue to navigate) a time unique to many of us for all that it has revealed about the world and how it works: both the powerful, self-sacrificial good that has been revealed and the utter evil which shows itself in a self-centeredness which so holds in low regard the wellbeing of others. (And yes, both live in me as well — particularly the latter as I grow weary of the toll these last years have taken…)
Surely, you and I continue to be forced to reckon the great goodness those magi encountered (and we do, too, whenever we join them on their journey) with a world which does not hold it all in the light of such love. We may, indeed, in Eliot’s way of thinking, sometimes yearn simply for the wholeness which comes beyond this life. More than this, though, may we be strengthened along with those wise ones who made their way to Bethlehem so long ago, to combat with whatever means we have at our disposal, that which would destroy the life and the lives God so loves — if only, sometimes, by ‘going home by another way…’
- How do you hear the story of these travelers to Bethlehem this year? What meaning does it hold for you as you join them with their gifts for the child and as they navigate their way through the powers of this world?
As I noted above, I am finding T.S. Eliot’s poem gives me an especially helpful window into these familiar words this time through. Might this true for you as well?
- Surely part of what makes this story so real is the threatening presence of evil which runs through it. I find this sounding more loudly than ever this year. As does the call to respond in some way as those magi did. Is this also so for you?
Indeed, how does the Epiphany form and inform, shape and direct your faith in this rare season in the world we inhabit? Do you also sense it is somehow different than ever before? If so, in what particular ways is this true for you?