Jan 6, 2010

Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi
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, 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.

* * * * * * *

T. S. Eliot published his poem Journey of the Magi shortly after he was baptised as an adult convert to Christianity.  A brief visit to your favourite search engine will reward you with some fairly decent commentaries on this poem.

January 6 marks the end of the "twelve days of Christmas."  In the western Christian tradition,  the feast is known as the Epiphany, and the focus is on the adoration the Magi offer to the Christ Child.  In the Orthodox Church, the conclusion to the Nativity season is the Feast of Theophany, wherein we celebrate the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.  In both cases, we see the inauguration of something new and the death of something old.

The Christmas carols I remember from my childhood sustained this understanding, but now it seems that nobody sings any more than the first and last verses of these hymns.  O Come O Come Emmanuel, Joy to the World, We Three Kings -- these all tell it like it is.  No magic talking snowmen or flying reindeer here!  No surprise, then, to hear the following chanted in the Orthodox Church:  "Christ is born to raise up the image that of old had fallen."

Likewise, in Orthodox iconography of the birth of Christ, there is a mirroring of themes and images from His burial.  The Virgin reclining occupies the same location within the cave as Christ's body in the tomb, the presence of angelic beings, the figures outside the entrance.  To quote Eliot again, "this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death."

And then there is the Baptism of Christ.  As St. Paul wrote, "do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."  (Romans 6:3-4)

Today is also the day that I am scheduled to leave the comfort of home.  With the exception of a few days in Paris, I will spend the next six weeks trying to walk in newness of life.


'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.'

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