Tonight I visited a small church called Journey Church, an emergent community in the heart of Dallas that I think, in their gatherings, seamlesly weave together older hymns, liturgy, and communion with newer music, modern art on the walls, and authentic community.
Because last Friday, the twelfth day after Christmas, was officially the holiday of Epiphany, the topic addressed tonight at Journey was the Magi’s journey (hah, I just realized the repetition of the word “journey” there…) to find Christ in Bethlehem.
T.S. Eliot understood that the mystery of pursuing Christ is indeed a journey. His poem “Journey of the Magi” says this:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a 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.
In a paper on this poem last semester I suggested the following (with emphasis added here):
Tales of Christmas often include three glorified, gold-crowned “wise men” riding camelback toward Bethlehem, faithfully following a bright, guiding star. But, in his “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot promotes neither this sense of idealism nor a sense of cynicism. Instead, he espouses a middle path of Christian realism. John A. Timmerman assesses in T.S. Eliot’s Ariel Poems that the poem’s three stanzas respectively depict a journey toward, an arrival, and a journey away. Each leg of this journey, paradoxically, has its difficulties and its value: journeying toward Christ comes not just with eager anticipation but frustration, arrival comes not with perfection but satisfaction, and journeying away comes not just with birth but death. In this way, by maintaining a balance of two contrarieties in each stanza, “Journey of the Magi” suggests that Eliot views Christianity as a journey of gradual, difficult discovery rather than sudden, glorious epiphany.
Two things about this thesis strike me:
1. Discovery is gradual rather than a blip in time. The Magi, Eliot imagines, didn’t suddenly have it all figured out after leaving the manger. And we, too, don’t suddenly have it all figured out after any one experience of Christ. Rather, each experience is a step in our journey.
2. Discovery can be difficult. Sure, it can be deeply “satisfying” – so satisfying that Eliot’s Magus says he “would do it again.” But discovery can also be difficult. And perhaps discovery is even satisfying because of the difficulty overcome to get there.
And one thing about the Magi strikes me:
1. Faith. I mean, seriously. They’re called “wise men.” They studied the stars much like astronomers do today. They didn’t know as much about the universe as scientists do these days, but they had just as much dedication to and pride in their field of study. Despite being veritable researchers, the Magi had the humility to leave their ivory astronomy tower. They had the eyes of faith to not only observe, measure, and calculate the stars but to pursue one of those stars and the light of the world, Jesus, that the star pointed to.