The Gift of the Magi
2 Christmas 2015—Epiphany, Observed
January 4, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’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.’”
[T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi.” These first lines are a quote within a quote. They were first penned by the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes in the early 17th century.]
So begins T.S. Eliot’s poem called “The Journey of the Magi.” These lines always make me feel cold—and it probably WAS then, as the magi chased after a promise in the heavens and in the scriptures. We’ll sample parts of this poem, and another one as well, as we reflect on the journey of the magi this morning.
Journeys are huge right now in spirituality circles. We may call them journeys—but we may also call them pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is a journey in search of something sacred—a place, a memory, a person, an insight. Pilgrimages may be literal journeys, covering literal ground, or they may be movements of the heart and spirit. Either way, they’re usually both difficult and rewarding, and they often end in some permanent change for the traveler.
So--let’s consider the journey of the magi.
First of all, who were these people? They were thought to be astrologers, or philosophers, or perhaps even magicians who practiced the dark arts of conjuring and channeling the spirits of the dead—which was and is very much forbidden in Jewish and Christian circles. Perhaps they were priests of some kind serving in Zoroastrian Eastern kingdoms. They were outsiders, and they were definitely coming from a culture and religion very different from Judaism. [William R. Herzog II, Feasting On the Word for 2 Christmas, Year B, p. 213]
And what must it have been like for them to prepare for the journey? We must surmise that they’d been watching the heavens carefully—which adds credence to the theory that they were astrologers—and maybe even astronomers, and they must have found incredibly strong reason to go on this quest. Imagine them lining up provisions for however long it would take and getting servants to load it all up on camels or other beasts of burden. Imagine wives and livelihoods left behind in this single-minded search for whatever lay on the other side of the star. They must have scrambled to answer this calling and it seems that this must have been one HUGE risk for them.
Imagine them persevering through all kinds of weather, like what we heard in the poem. Snow, cold, lack of plentiful water in the deserts, sandstorms. Imagine them putting all their faith in a star that flamed up in the sky. That seems foolhardy to me, for sure.
Imagine their terror in the daytime when the star was no longer to be seen—maybe that’s when they slept.
These magi must have had incredible stores of patience and perseverance and trust—and these things are even today prerequisites for those on pilgrimage.
And finally they arrive in the great city of Jerusalem, on the Silk Road, and they ask directions. Not to see the king, who was actually a petty despot placed there by the Roman occupiers. But instead to see a child who had been born “king of the Jews.” Herod has his scribes do a little research and they point the magi to Bethlehem, the city where David was anointed by Samuel some 1000 years earlier, and the Davidic line began.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that Herod didn’t go with them to Bethlehem to see this child who was such a threat. And he didn’t send any of his people to do the same, but instead used these magi as his agents. His spies.
And we know that God intervenes in Herod’s half-baked plan, though, and makes sure they avoid Herod and Jerusalem on their way back East. But before that, we are privileged to read about the way the magi’s pilgrimage came to its goal. They continued to follow the star, and they found the child Jesus with his mother.
Imagine the curious scene as these astrologers from the East knelt and paid homage to a little boy born in poverty to an unwed teenage mother. Surely God intervened to bring them to this place. And surely they were obedient to the leading.
What must it have been like for them to find this child? Another poet, Thomas Troeger, gives us a little possible insight in these words:
“The light that bright star sends
at last will come to rest,
revealing where the journey ends
begins a deeper quest.”
[Thomas Troeger, “Directions for Magi,” Above the Moon Earth Rises, p. 37]
On finding the child they ended their first quest. But we imagine they began a second quest—one that was to lead them on and on, and challenge and confront them for the rest of their lives. This second, deeper quest, is the pilgrimage to penetrate to one’s heart, to find the child there, too, to see the connections between the cosmos and the people here and now and before and to come. To see that things are interconnected, fueled by the love of a Creator who intervened at such depth as to send himself into his own creation in the disguise of a creature. To learn to love and to forgive over and over again. To be formed in that Creator’s image more and more with the passage of time and opportunities to choose the better way.
How can these magi ever have been the same after they encountered these challenges?
T. S. Eliot muses on this theme at the end of his poem “The Journey of the Magi”. We hear one of them reflecting:
“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, ibid.]
This time of year we have a very unique spiritual opportunity to go to Bethlehem in our own pilgrimage of the heart. We have seen him in the scriptures, in the parish, and in the hearts of people we love over these past few weeks. That’s what our Christmastide is all about.
And now we’re challenged to “go back home” like the magi did, but by a different way. We’re challenged to make this story a deeper part of our consciousness and allow it to change us more and more thoroughly. No longer can we walk the paths we did before we met this child. Now we go forth, ready for another death, which will be a Birth into knowing him more fully. We might die a thousand deaths a day and be reborn more like him each time.
So--Do what you can to live into the journey more fully. Let this child engage you more deeply and take risks as you look for him in the hearts of those you love and in the hearts of those you do NOT love. Take the news about him to some people who will be overjoyed, and to other people who may be terribly threatened.
And find the joy in the journey.