‘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.’
With those words T.S. Eliot begins his poem called the “Journey of the Magi,” which imagines what one of the Wise Men who traveled from the East might have said about his long journey following a star to find the child king in Bethlehem.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the church calendar marks the arrival of these Wise Men. Many countries actually make the Epiphany the peak of their Christmas celebrations, since the twelfth day of Christmas is the day when these Wise Men knelt before the Christ Child bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In fact, if we were keeping our Christmas traditions correctly, we would finally put the Wise Men with their camels in our crêches, and we would be taking our Christmas tree down this afternoon as we open our last Christmas present!
It should be said that it is difficult to pin down much in the way of historical fact in the story of the Magi. Much of what we think is in the story actually came into the tradition much later. Nothing in the text tells us that there were three Wise Men, for one thing. That seems to have come from the fact that the Wise Men brought three gifts. And nothing says they were kings; that may have been an elaboration of a reference in the Psalms we read today about kings bringing gifts. The names assigned to them, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar don’t appear anywhere before the 6th century.
And they weren’t necessarily even wise. “Magi” is the Greek word, but we don’t even know exactly what the word would have meant—magicians, astrologers maybe, astronomers, philosophers, perhaps.
You may have come across the old wise crack question, What if the wise men had been three wise women? Well, clearly things would have been different. They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, cleaned the stable, helped deliver the baby, brought a casserole, and given practical gifts like gloves or a Target gift certificate, instead of useless presents like gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew’s gospel tells a different story from Luke’s familiar account of the birth at a manger in Bethlehem surrounded by shepherds and angels. For Matthew, the story of the Magi is the Christmas story, the arrival of Gentiles from the far corners of the earth to worship the next king. In fact, the earliest pictures of Christmas in the catacombs in Rome showed the Magi, not the shepherds. And to this day the story of brilliant, wealthy foreign magicians or philosophers following the leading of the star remains maybe our most beautiful portrayal of the meaning of Christ’s birth.
Well, on they traveled mile after dusty mile following that star. In Eliot’s poem, one of the Wise Men describes their journey this way:
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.
The story of these traveling magi is intended to be about us—sophisticated, savvy, educated, secular types, searching for signs of the world’s deepest meaning. Through hostile cities and loud distractions the Wise Men traveled as many around them were saying that even the search itself was a folly.
I don’t know about you, but I sense a lot of searching going on in our time. The polls tells us that people are longing for a deeper meaning in their lives. Only 28% of Americans are happy with where our country and our world are going. Some 90% believe in God, but many aren’t finding what they are looking for in churches. Many are content to drift, put the question of faith on hold, and stay busy looking after today and tomorrow. Presumably, there were plenty of sophisticated people in the Magi’s world that included most of what we call the Middle East. But only a few decided to follow a star and search for the key that would unlock world’s mystery.
But the quest for our time is deeper than only our own inner questions. The real adventure of our era, I believe, isn’t going to be simply finding our personal happiness, or sending a spacecraft to Mars, or extending our life spans so that we live to be 125. It will be a quest to find a way for human beings to live together on this earth in peace. The great challenge of the 21st century will be the quest to create a more habitable earth for everyone, and will require more imagination, daring, and sacrifice than any of us can imagine.
T.S. Eliot wrote his poem on the Magi in 1927, after he himself had been on a long search. This was the year he had been baptized at the age of 39, and this poem is in many ways about his own conversion. It had been a long, hard journey to the baptismal font for him too, from his own roots as a Unitarian, through his studies in philosophy and Eastern religions at Harvard, to seeking his spiritual roots in England. And my guess is that for many of us here today, it has been a long journey trying to find a place to rest our hearts.
Matthew says that when the travelers arrived, “They were overwhelmed with joy.” Joy is the pervading tone of the story. In a child in a manger they found the answer to their lifetime’s longing—a Love, a Purpose, a Calling, for them and the whole human family. So they kneel down before this child-king and open their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
But then hovering over this story is King Herod, a Jewish puppet installed on the throne by Rome. He is the embodiment of power, but we see him nervous and worried at the news the Wise Men bring that a child is born who will himself become king of the Jews . Herod is also one of history’s worst villains. He murdered his wife, three of his children, and most of his good friends—anyone who made him feel threatened. And not only was he terrified, but Matthew tells us that “all Jerusalem” was terrified with him. They knew how bloody Herod could be, but at least he kept order; better that than someone you don’t know at all. Soon Herod in an effort to destroy this child king will order the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem.
Jesus was a threat from the start—especially to the ones who hold the reins of power, who have the world working their way. Of course it was taken for granted that power comes from palaces and that real power rests in armies, swords, and violence. “Everyone knows” that security is built on overwhelming military might and the willingness to use it brutally when necessary.
And then this child is born and the powers start shaking. It’s the Wise Men who know that vulnerable love is the only lasting hope for our world, that reconciliation and justice are the only way, that Christ’s love is the key to happiness. The Magi are the first ones there to worship a king who comes to bring a peace and security deeper than any army could provide.
This is how T.S. Eliot describes the moment the magi arrive:
…and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
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? …
We returned to our palaces, 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.
Strangely, there is no joy in T.S. Eliot’s poem. When the Wise Men arrive, the word for their experience is “satisfactory.” And then the speaker wonders, “Were we brought all this way for birth or death?”
Maybe that’s the question. Are we looking at a birth this morning—the beginning of God’s work through this little child? Or is this all about a death—the end of the world as Herod runs it, the end of the world as we want to run it? Is a Love being born in the world that will want to rearrange everything in our world and our lives? Is this new life going to mean both joy and sorrow?
Well, after the Magi have knelt before the child and given their gifts, it’s time to leave. But they don’t go back to Jerusalem where they know Herod is waiting for them. They head home “by another road.”
What about us? We too have traveled to Bethlehem this year. We’ve had our chance to kneel and worship. We’ve looked down on this vulnerable love born in a world full of Herods.
What will this ask of us? Are we ready to travel home by a different road? The world around us is the same place it was before this Christmas journey—a world of war and anxiety and inequalities. By now we’re soon back to our old jobs and familiar relationships. And yet, to follow this child is to live a different way. It is to be called to serve this vulnerable love—creating a space for peace in our world starting at home, then moving to our workplace, our city, and our world.
Do you want a better world in this year? If you do, you need, as a friend of mine once said, “to defect in place.” Live where you are, but place yourself in the service of the child and not Herod. Learn to pray, read scripture, find a cause, take a class. Live with the patience and joy of someone who knows Christ’s love.
We who have been to Bethlehem this season now face the question, Are we willing to follow this child? If so, we have quite an adventure ahead, traveling by a different way.