Isaiah 60. 1 – 6
Matthew 2. 1 – 12
Fr Kenneth Crawford, Parish Priest, St John the Baptist, Newcastle upon Tyne
In America in 1880, a novel was published which became an international best-seller and to this day has never been out of print. In the beginning of the book, a man and his camel are traversing the middle eastern countryside as he journeys to an unknown destination. He describes the terrain, how difficult it is to cross, how hard it is on the camel, and how tiring for him personally.
He pitches his tent at an arranged place and waits for another person to join him, and another. The first traveller is a Greek, the second a Hindoo, and the third an Egyptian. Finally, the three meet at the Greek’s tent and together progress to their destination. Gradually, as the novel opens up, we find that these three are travelling to the place of a baby’s birth, following the heavens and how the planets and stars have guided them. Eventually, they arrive at the place and pay due homage to this baby.
The author of the novel is Major-General Lew Wallace, a commanding officer in the United States Confederate army at the time of the American Civil War. The book is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. In writing it, Wallace confirmed his own Christian faith.
Because of the opening story in Ben-Hur about those who travelled to pay homage to the Christ, T. S. Eliot might have been inspired to write his poem, Journey of the Magi, which tells the story of the Magi coming to the manger-throne and how difficult the journey was for them all. The speaker is one of the Magi, recounting the journey once they had gone back to the places where they lived. Here is the poem:
‘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.
Eliot wrote this poem in 1927, on the occasion of his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. It’s a profound poem because it talks about the old and the new. The clue is the final stanza, where the Magus says
“Set down this, set down
this: were we led all that way for
birth or death?”
What the speaker is actually saying is that they were transformed by the Christ experience. When they got home, they were no longer at ease in their old way of life because they had experienced something which riveted them to a new way of thinking, of perceiving the world and the whole of life. The poem evokes the reality of acute change and how hard it is to experience this kind of change. The Magus says “All this was a long time ago”, showing that change to the new is not something instant, but a gradual process.
This was the case for Eliot in his conversion to Christianity. He was forced to re-evaluate his old way of life with everything that it held dear for him. He didn’t let go of his experiences, but cast them in a new light of understanding. He ‘died’ to an old way of life and took on something new in Christian formation. The ‘death’ to the old way of life was hard and bitter agony for him, as the Magus reflects in the poem. The same can be said for the baptismal vows we make and their true meaning.
We can see how the first two stanzas reflect the growing understanding of this change of life:
a running stream — an allusion to the water of life in John 4;
three trees on a low sky — an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves either side;
the old white horse — an allusion to the horse of the apocalypse in Revelation 6;
at a tavern six hands dicing for pieces of silver — an allusion to the temple authorities tempting Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus and the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ seamless robe;
feet kicking empty wine-skins — an allusion to the biblical illustration about the importance of not putting new wine into old wine-skins because the new wine will perish. In other words, the empty wine-skins are the former way of life, about to be changed for the Magi — and for Eliot.
What does all this say to us, tonight, as we celebrate the showing of the Christ-child to the Gentile world? We become the Magi. We become the ones challenged to hold the whole of life in a new perspective as we contemplate the birth of Jesus. This is not simply a time of pretty manger scenes and Jesus kept as an infant for the two-thousand-and-twenty-second time: as the late American Bishop Phillips Brookes says in his famous Christmas carol, “O holy child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray, / Cast out our sin and enter in, / Be born in us today.”
Asking Jesus to be born in us is quite different from going through the motions of Christmas, year after year, with all the tinsel and fripperies. It challenges us, as Eliot does in this wonderful poem, to re-evaluate our lives in godly terms; to be rid of the old dispensation — in other words the way of life we see all around us at the moment: the selfishness, the greed, the murders, the wars, the various fiascos with the handling of the pandemic; the goodness within the world notwithstanding — and be glad of another death, the death to that which separates us from God in Christ. And in return holds us captive to the eternal. This eternal is that which unites us with Christ every time we communicate in his body and blood.
May this Christmastide — this ‘Christ-Mass’, this Feast of Christ — be a time of renewal, of consolidation of faith, and a time when we can all say anew with Bishop Phillips Brookes, “O come to us, / Abide with us, / Our Lord, Emmanuel.”
[The first five lines of Eliot’s poem are adapted from a sermon given by the Bishop of Winchester, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, in 1622.]