As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany T.S. Eliot’s, The Journey of the Magi provides words for us to reflect on what this season can mean for us. This poem was written in 1927 soon after Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism. It is written from the perspective of one of the wise men. It is a wonderful poem but not really uplifting in an obvious kind of way. For the poet speaks of the challenge of the journey, a journey that takes place in winter, the worst time of year. He outlines the difficulties – the night fires going out, the unfriendly towns, their inner doubts telling them the journey was pure folly. The wise man says that he would take the journey again but there is a sense in the poem that birth and death are entwined. “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 old dispensation,with an alien people clutching their gods.”
While the journey led to revelation, this encounter with Christ was a sobering one. Rather than a kind of revelation that immediately brightens the world, we get a sense of serious pause. The poem causes us to consider that because of what they have seen, nothing can be the same again for these travelers whose most significant wisdom may have come as a result of the journey. The poem ends at the point of disorientation. This experience is more in keeping with a definition I found of Epiphany as “a sobering sequel to Advent, as a chance to get down to brass tacks and concentrate on the unfinished business of Christ’s coming. (New Proclamation Year C edited by Marshall D. Johnson, 2000, p.77). What might the unfinished business of Christ’s coming mean for us? It calls us, like the wise men, to take a moment of serious pause and then to take the journey beyond where we are, to encounter Christ in new ways and to share that journey and the wisdom we find with others. This is the unfinished business of Christ’s coming. It reminds us that a journey outside familiar boundaries can leave us, like the wise man, disoriented for a time but that is never the end of our story as people of faith. From there, God provides our grounding and ways to share our light with others, for God always prompts us to set out from where we are, and calls us to be in ministry. It is so tempting to stay in the wonder of Christmas Eve and day. I love those days. I want to stay there and I suspect some of you share this desire. Even though we can’t stay there, what those days do is help us remember that Christ is always willing to come to us and this gives us enough light to set out, to keep going and as we do we have more to share with others. We are called to journey like the Magi whose wisdom was manifested in their willingness to venture out and whose wisdom grew as they journeyed on. Sometimes that journey is to new geographical places, other times the journey involves moving differently in the places where we already are, or perhaps the call is to journey inward so that we can uncover more of our own soul and as a result have more to offer the world that is so often overshadowed by the death. It’s challenging because in many ways most of us don’t really want to go very far from home, from the things we know.
I once read a commentary on our western culture that asserted that we tend to reject the invitation to move into a place of unknowing and mystery because planning and achievement always trump unknowing, mystery, unfolding and fallowness, which are the very experiences that may help us “stay fully awake in the dark to emerge wiser and more resilient” Taking the journey with just enough light to see a few steps ahead, that’s what the wise ones did, and in doing so they gave us an example of finding a path to new life. Stepping out and not knowing, trusting that there will be light in the darkness, that God is with us. This is how we move into the unfinished business of Christ’s coming with our fellow travelers. So let us continue our journey together staying awake to the light of Christ with us and sharing this light through our presence and ministry to and with others.