Sunday, 4 January 2015

An Epiphany sermon on the 50th
anniversary of the death of TS Eliot

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Patrick Comerford,

The Second Sunday of Christmas,

4 January 2015,

Zion Church, Rathgar, Dublin:

10.30 a.m., The Eucharist

Readings:


Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 147: 12-20; Ephesians 1: 3-14; John 1: [1-9], 10-18.

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Christmas festivities are almost over, the New Year’s celebrations are already past. Some of us may have returned to work, or are going back to school or college tomorrow. Some of us, perhaps, have already forgotten those New Year’s resolutions made only a few days ago. We are a people with great resolve but little perseverance.

But it is good at the beginning of a new year, on our first Sunday back in Church, to begin at the beginning.

And so, on this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Christmas, the cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary always provides for these same readings.

The prophet Jeremiah has that wonderful promise of new beginnings, of a new heaven and a new earth, that is a cheering beginning to the new year.

In the bleak midwinter, the Psalmist reminds us that God “gives snow like wool and scatters the hoarfrost like ashes.”

Saint Paul, in turn reminds us of our first promise in Christ and our final hopes in God’s promises.

And then in the Gospel, we re-read what is for many one of the climatic readings on Christmas day: the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

This Gospel reading comes to mind when I read TS Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’ – the second of his poems in the Four Quartets, which opens:

In my beginning is my end …

and which ends:

… In my end is my beginning.

For Christmas is meaningless as a beginning unless it has its end, and the end must have a beginning.

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over the next few weeks, the Epiphany readings remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas, nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes are:

• The Adoration of the Magi (Tuesday’s reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, Matthew 2: 1-12);
• The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, next Sunday’s reading, 11 January, Mark 1: 1-11);
• The miracle at the wedding in Cana (Epiphany 3, 25 January, John 2: 1-11).

But, while we are moving from Christmas to Epiphany, which begins on 6 January and ends at the Feast of the Presentation on Candlemas on 2 February, the Epiphany season is truly a continuation of the Christmas season, the liturgical colour remains white, and together Christmas and Epiphany form one full, continuous season of 40 days.

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. It inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot, who died on this day 50 years ago, 4 January 1965.

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

In some ways, this poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), but also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats.

However, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘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), Bishop of Winchester, who first 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.”

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. He chooses an elderly speaker who is world-weary, reflective and sad. This narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to us, the readers, directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man 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.”

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving magus complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. He says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that “this was all folly.” The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


The birth of Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

On their journey, the Magi see “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. 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 also 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, another Epiphany theme.

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?

He is 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?

And so, on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of TS Eliot, the greatest Anglican poet of the 20th century, let me go no further and simply read that poem, which links Christmas, Epiphany and the Easter story, which links beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings, which makes sense and meaning of the Christmas story at the beginning of this New Year:

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

The Journey of the Magi, by TS 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.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect:

Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
Help us to walk in this light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Light eternal,
you have nourished us in the mystery
of the body and blood of your Son:
By your grace keep us ever faithful to your word,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 4 January 2015.

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