06 January 2011

Epiphany and the Journey of the Magi

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

We have come to the end of the Christmas season. Today, 6 January is the Feast of the Epiphany. The season of joyful celebration that began at Christmas now continues through the successive Sundays of Epiphany, through a festal cycle that culminates at Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

In the Orthodox tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates both the Baptism of Christ by John in the waters of the River Jordan, and Christ’s changing of after into wine at the Wedding in Cana – both are Epiphany moments when he is revealed as the Water of Life.

In the Western traditions of the Church, the Epiphany concentrates in particular on the visit of the Magi, Wise Men from the East, to the new-born Christ Child in Bethlehem, a story that is unique to Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

Epiphany-tide is a season when we pray for the world wide mission of the Church. We move from the gentile kings of the nations kneeling in adoration before the Incarnate Christ, to marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January) and celebrating the conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (25 January).

A sermon in a poem

Some years ago in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, when term began earlier, instead of preaching a sermon on this day, I read T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi.

Eliot wrote this poem after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation as an Anglican on 29 June 1927, and the poem was published in 1930 in Ariel Poems. Later, Eliot became churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s in Gloucester Road, London, and he remained a lifelong Anglo-Catholic.

The Journey of the Magi is a truly Anglican poem for the first five lines are based on the 1622 Nativity Sermon of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who oversaw the translation and publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible 400 years ago in 1611, and who is buried by the High Altar in Southwark Cathedral.

It was Lancelot Andrewes who summarised Anglicanism in the dictum “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.”

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. It picks up his consistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

But, instead of a being celebration of the wonders of the journey, the wise man in the poem recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that “this was all folly.”

At first, it appears, the Wise Man from the East was not impressed by the new-born infant. But he came to realise that the incarnation changes everything, and asks:

“were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?”

On the journey, they saw “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The “running stream” may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is an Epiphany moment.

The “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, which is also recalled at Epiphany time.

The early morning descent into a “temperate valley” evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death? A witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment? With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings? Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

The Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot

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, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may 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.

We are celebrating Epiphany at the Sung Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 6 p.m. this evening.

The Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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