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Epiphany with T.S.Eliot

The Three Kings, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar are welcomed to the stable by an angel.

Detail of nave mosaic in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, depicting the Three Magi in leopard-print leggings.

The mosaic is Byzantine (c.560), but has been heavily restored.

Today the season of Christmas comes to an end. We can pack away the crib and the shepherds, the tinsel and the Christmas tree, Mary, Joseph and the Kings from the East. Next week, the white frontal will have gone and we’re back to green vestments and decorations until Lent comes with purple and no flowers.

But before we leave the season of Christmas, I’d like to reflect a little on these wise men from the East, who came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” First of all, the bible gives us little information – they are wise men, in Greek, “magoi”, mages, which probably means, astrologers, stargazers. After all, they had “observed his star at its rising, and had come to pay (him) homage.” But that’s all the bible says – we don’t even know how many astrologers there were.

But these strange visitors and their exotic gifts have captured our imagination – poets and painters have been inspired to write and to paint what we call “The Adoration of the Magi”. We call them kings because we’ve read psalm 72, which talks about the kings of Tarshish and the Isles, of Sheba and Seba, bringing gifts. And these kings have names – Melchior, king of Persia; Gaspar, king of India; and Balthasar, king of Arabia – names mysterious and magical, and, for the people of Europe, kingdoms where the buildings have domes and arches, where there are exotic animals, things like camels and elephants.

In the same way, the gifts they brought to the Christ child were given spiritual meaning. Gold was associated with royalty, so the gold proclaimed Jesus as the King of the Jews, great David’s royal son. According to the book Exodus, Frankincense was the holy perfume used in the sanctuary of the temple, and no where else – so frankincense reminds us that in Christ dwelt all the fullness of God – the gift declares Jesus to be the Son of God. The third gift, myrrh, is used for anointing. The kings of old were anointed with myrrh at their coronations, the high priests were anointed with myrrh at their consecration, and throughout the ages, the dead were anointed with myrrh for their burial. This last gift points sharply to Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed one, the one who is hailed as the king and high priest who died on the cross for our salvation.

But these kingly gifts draw our attention away from the kingly visitors themselves. What affect did the visit have on them? After having travelled all the way from the mysterious East, what memories did they take back with them. How did the sight of the child change their lives? We don’t know. Certainly the sight of the star was enough to make these rich and powerful people leave their homes and journey to a place they had scarce heard of. It reminds me of Abraham, who left the comfort of his home in Haran to cross the desert to the strange land of Canaan. It reminds me of people who have made a journey of faith. People who have discovered the Christ child and left their comfortable thoughts and quiet minds, and gone in search of meaning and purpose, seeking a relationship with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Matthew contrasts the “magoi” with King Herod, who was so insecure in his power and so blinkered by his own narrow viewpoint that instead of seeking God in the Christ Child, he sought instead to kill him, thinking that this way he could control his own life and the lives of those around him. The “magoi” allowed themselves to be caught up in their faith, led out of their comfort zone, and changed in ways they could never have foreseen.

We all have the choice, as individuals and as nations, to allow God to work with us and change us as we work with God to change the world. Or we can insist on our own way, and resist any possibility that our lives might be changed, and ignore the needs of the world and its people.

The poet, T S Eliot thought that the Journey of the Magi changed them and their world and the way they saw their lives for ever. Here is the poem he wrote. You might like to think how the birth has changed you and your life.

Journey of the Magi
'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 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 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.

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