Epiphany – TS Eliot and the Magi

Soon after his conversion and baptism in 1927, TS Eliot wrote “Journey of the Magi,” which begins:

‘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.’

Eliot wrote this poem during a time of deep personal and spiritual struggle. His marriage, which had been difficult for a number of years, was coming to a close. His newly forming faith demanded that he leave behind parts of himself to which he had grown accustomed. Everything was changing. New life was born out of a series of deaths. The poem concludes:

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.

The story of the Magi, which culminates in the Adoration of the Magi on January 6 – Epiphany – is a story about uncertainty, journey, death, and birth. Many of us look back to the story of the Magi believing it to be part of our spiritual history, but, a more mature faith looks to the story as something much more meaningful. It is about us searching for God. We struggle. We search. We come to what feels like unsatisfactory endings to our travels only to be led down yet more paths to unknown destinations. We go through periods of deep uncertainty. Like the Magi, we little understand the culture or the ways of Jesus and his family. Like the Magi, we are distanced from them by space. Unlike the Magi, we are also distanced by two millennia; time is its own ocean we must cross to meet the Christ-child. Like the Magi, we must die to our gods in order to enter into the presence of the God of the Most High.

Epiphany is our celebration of the gift of ourselves to God. We bring all that we have – our best, our most precious selves and we kneel in awe and wonder at the miracle of the Divine One right here among us. Epiphany is for all who struggle and weep, for all who wrestle with God, for all who question whether we will find God at all. Epiphany is our way of experiencing together, if only for one day, a reality that is both in and outside of our world. God is here. In the humble places. In our fear. In our dreams. In the dirt, slime, and muck of the world. God is here. Despite our doubts. Despite our wars. Despite our greed. Despite our proclivity to wound one another. God is here. God knows the pain of birth, life, and death. God knows all that we experience because God experiences it with us. Birth and death. So close together. As we start our new year together, I wish you healing deaths and vibrant life. I hope that we, like the Magi, learn to die that we might live. I hope that we, Queen Anne UMC, can hear the beauty and the calling of the words of TS Eliot, whose own journey to the manger led him to realize:

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.

3 Replies to “Epiphany – TS Eliot and the Magi”

  1. Wow, thank you for reminding us that TS Eliot was such a gifted writer. I forget about his conversion and the depth of his work! This was such a good remembrance for me in this time of life.

  2. This was beautiful! Our Pastor read the poem by T. S. Elliot at Mass this morning. I loved it and went in search of more. Thank you.

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