This Sunday just passed marked Epiphany in the Christian calendar, the date when we remember the visit paid to Jesus by wise men from the East (the Magi, also known as the Three Kings) as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew (Matthew 2:1-12).
The Modernist poet T. S Eliot wrote The Journey of the Magi from the perspective of one of those wise men, probably court advisors, who had left their home and journeyed from ‘the East’ (we are told no more) to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2a). These ‘wise men’ were probably scholars, skilled in philosophy and mysticism as well as what passed for the science of the day, including astrology. Interestingly, modern astronomical modelling seems to indicate that a rare planetary alignment may have taken place around 3BCE, creating an unusually bright ‘star’ which would undoubtedly have caught the attention of such scholars.
Regardless, Eliot’s poem does a fantastic job of evoking not only the mundane experiences and inconveniences of the magi’s journey but also the sense of psycho-spiritual unease engendered by a growing recognition that a period of immense spiritual upheaval was beginning. The second verse also contains a number of symbols foreshadowing the Crucifixion – look out for three trees (representing the three crosses), pieces of silver, hands casting lots…
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.