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Journey of the Magi

Epiphany, 6 January, 2010
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a 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.

Well, you must have known that was coming. If you ask a literature teacher to preach for Epiphany, what can you expect. It was, of course, TS Eliot's great poem 'Journey of the Magi'. The role of poetry according the one of the first systematic literary critics, the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, is to make the familiar strange — to let us see what we think we know for the first time. And what could be more familiar than the three wise men visiting the infant Jesus? What Eliot gives us though, is not some nativity play wise man, delighted and impressed by what he has seen, but a disillusioned figure, a man who despite his wealth and privilege has lost his spiritual bearings — perhaps a much more relevant figure for our time. There is much else which seems, at first reading strange.

For what pervades the poem is death — as well as birth. Three trees on the skyline and the men dicing for pieces of silver all evoke the passion rather than the nativity. And despite his apparently unimpressed response to the nativity — all he can call the scene is 'satisfactory' — he knows that what he has seen marks the death of the world he has known. Yet Matthew's story is also pervaded by death, which we tend to conveniently ignore. One of the gifts brought to the Christ child is myrrh, the balm used to anoint the bodies of the dead. And the story is followed by the Massacre of the Innocents — which you could argue was triggered by the worldly preconceptions of the wise men, who assume that the king they seek will be found at the court of a jealous Herod. Perhaps they're not so wise after all.

Now, in bringing this up, I don't mean to imply the sort of Reformed theology which only sees the Incarnation as significant because it leads to the cross. Like the church near me in the eastern suburbs whose wayside sign reads: 'If it wasn't for Christmas we wouldn't have Easter', a sentiment which I imagine confuses, rather than evangelises the good commuters of Doncaster Road. But it is significant that even here, the Incarnation challenges and is resisted by those whose authority is based on clutching the gods of temporal power and violence.

But what about us? Like the Magi, have we been led all this way for birth or death? Can we imagine our confrontation with the incarnate God to be something much tougher than a scene from a nativity play — something much more like hard and bitter agony? Eliot's wise man knows that this confrontation has brought about the death of everything he has known — the world of magic and paganism, which forms the basis of his power, wealth and authority. He is weary and lost, no longer at ease. On the face of it, not much of a role model — and certainly nothing like full of the joy and happiness that popular Christian literature tells us results from an encounter with Christ.

But he knows. He knows that the world has changed. He knows that he is a part of more than a cute story involving a baby. He knows he cannot comfortably live in the same way any more. He knows. But do we? Are we no longer at ease here in the old dispensation? Can we persist on the cold journey, regretting the summer palaces? Are we prepared to confront an incarnation which means the death of everything upon which we base our comfort, power and privilege? Can we deal with the voices singing in our ears, saying that our journey is all folly?

Or do we, after meeting the incarnate God, return to our places, these Kingdoms — Chadstone in the midst of the post-Christmas sales — with an alien people clutching their gods. And feel quite comfortably at home?


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