Monday, 6 January 2020

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year’

‘A cold coming we had of it’ … the visit of the Magi in a fresco in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Monday 6 January 2020

The Epiphany

11 a.m.:
The Epiphany Eucharist

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

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

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day, traditionally, that the Christmas decorations come down. For many, Epiphany is the ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Little Christmas’ or Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’

There are three principle Epiphany themes in the Gospels:

● The Adoration of the Magi (this year’s Gospel reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2020, Matthew 2: 1-12)

● The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, next Sunday’s reading, 12 January 2020, Matthew 3: 13-17)

● the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11), which we read about in this season last year (Epiphany II, 20 January 2019).

But, while we are moving from Christmas to Epiphany, which 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. This visit is a popular image for Christmas cards, but very often we have taken down the Christmas cards by the Feast of the Epiphany, and so we are left without a visual reminder of what they represent.

Many years, ago, instead of preaching on this morning’s story in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, I read TS Eliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi.’

TS Eliot was the greatest Anglican poet of the 20th century. In this poem, he links Christmas, Epiphany and the Easter story, links beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings, and so makes sense and meaning of the Christmas story at the beginning of this New Year.

Eliot wrote this poem after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but it 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 an earlier poet by WB Yeats, ‘The Magi.’

However, unlike that poem by Yeats, Eliot’s poem 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.

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of the 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, but 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 Journey of the Magi – 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.

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

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Adoration of the Magi … a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Hymns:

202, What child is this, who laid to rest (CD 13)
201, We three kings of Orient are (CD 13)
189, As with gladness men of old (CD 12)

The Adoration of the Magi, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591, in the Museum of Christian Art in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The Visit of the Magi in the 13th century Church of the Holy Cross or ‘Martyrium’ in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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