T.S. Eliot reimagined the magi, the three astrologers from “the East” who came to see the newborn king.
I hope this doesn’t feel too much like English class–unless you loved English class, like I did, in which case I hope it feels just like English class.
The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot
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, sorefooted, 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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might 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.
“Were we led all that way for Birth or Death? I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”
I’ve thought a lot about how we discern if people are Jesus’ followers or not. It’s a dangerous question even to raise.
The safer, perhaps wiser question to ask is: am I a Jesus follower? That’s a question I feel qualified to answer.
Am I changed?
Any way you read the Gospels, Jesus asks people to change. Eliot depicts how the magi are changed through the journey. They suffer through their travels, missing their home and its comforts, yet after they encounter the birth they return to an alien people and find they have comfort there no longer. The magus describes in detail the hardships of travel and their mistreatment at the hands of many, yet begins the final stanza “I would do it again.”
Something in the suffering, something in the days and nights of the journey itself, that culminated in an encounter they could not fully understand, transformed them.
Eliot’s poem takes artistic license, yet it rings true for me because I know this: we are not to encounter Jesus and come away unchanged.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposedso that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
A few days ago, we looked at how people can be tempted to reject and even destroy miracles because those miracles can demand too much. The chief priest and the Sanhedrin decided to kill Lazarus for being raised from the dead. Miracles confront our beliefs and force us to integrate new information that does not fit comfortably into our accepted take on life.
In the US, we specialize in watering down our miracles. We imagine (okay, invent) a Gospel in which we might encounter Jesus and hang out together as pleasant companions exchanging companionable pleasantries. I don’t know if we experience the numinous at our encounter with the baby Jesus because we separate “holy infant so tender and mild” from “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say?” and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But these cannot be divided. One purpose of this Advent series has been to (re)connect Jesus’ whole life to his coming as a baby. As Richard Rohr describes,
“Jesus identified his own message with what he called the coming of the ‘reign of God’ or the Kingdom of God,’ whereas we had often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality, or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus.”
To encounter Jesus in his miraculous, world-shifting incarnation is to encounter Jesus’ whole life on earth. The Bible gives no option for warm-fuzzies-about-baby-Jesus-and-then-moving-on. Watering down the miracle of Jesus’ birth turns God’s action of love and self-giving into a Christmas ornament, background music, and a verse on a card. As I said, we U.S. Americans excel at this.
The magi tell us, “This Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” Exactly. This birth is like our death. This birth we come to, kneeling next to an infant laid in a feed trough, leads directly to a death that results in resurrection–the only death that results in resurrection. Jesus in the manger is Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive his murderers.
Jesus doesn’t ask perfect obedience; he asks faithfulness. We may know ourselves to be miserable wretches when we meet Jesus and we may struggle with our sins and addictions every day of our lives, but being close to Jesus will change us. Journeying to worship the one born King of the Jews must transform us.
Change can mean many different things: compassion for immigrants, patience with my son, forgiveness for myself, no longer at ease here in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.
But set down this:
If I’m not changed, I’m not following Jesus.