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. . . 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

 —T. S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”

After reading the closing lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” I was met by a classroom of silent, confused sixth graders. My students readily understood Christmas poems by Christina Rossetti and even John Donne, but the T. S. Eliot poem I selected challenged them, and understandably so. The poem pictures, as the title suggests, the Magi’s harrowing journey from their luxurious lives in the East to visit the lowly stable of the Christ child during “the worst time of the year.” By depicting the difficulty experienced by Christ’s first Gentile worshippers, “Journey of the Magi” captures an essential component of the Christian life: death.

Though I read Eliot’s poem alongside other Christmas poems, it would rightly be read now, around the Feast of Epiphany. As Peter Leithart describes it, “Epiphany, which begins on January 6, means ‘manifestation,’ and the season commemorates the appearance of Jesus to the magi, the firstfruits of the gathering of the Gentiles.” 

Many modern Christians give but a cursory nod to Epiphany and its meaning. As a Presbyterian, I did not grow up eating king cakes or singing Epiphany hymns in January. Most of my students do not come from traditions that celebrate or even acknowledge the Twelve Days of Christmastide and their culmination in the Feast of Epiphany. Instead, for most of us modern Protestants, after Advent, Christmas, and New Years, we return to work or school, settle back into our familiar patterns of life, and put off consideration of the Church calendar until Lent or Easter. 

But Eliot invites us to remember why the Church has, in fact, set aside a day to celebrate the Magi’s visitation. In celebrating the Incarnation at Christmas we remember the Son of God’s gracious condescension in emptying himself to take on human flesh, but Epiphany especially reminds us of the purpose of this Incarnation. As we remember the journey of the most unexpected of worshippers—Eastern astrologists—toward Bethlehem, we remember that Christ came to unsettle the nations through his life and death, to draw the most unexpected toward him and overturn their worship of falsity.

Christmas and Epiphany herein represent the paradox of Christ’s Incarnation: At Christmas, we recognize that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. But at Epiphany, at least in Eliot’s imagination, we recall that Christ brings division first. The Eastern kings who traveled far and denied Herod to bow before a baby recognized Jesus as the true King, whose reign upends all earthly allegiances and powers.

The Advent of King Jesus sets his people “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,” as Eliot’s Magi express at the close of the poem. Throughout their journey, the Magi recall the comforts of their kingdoms—“summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / and the silken girls bringing sherbet”—while doubt rings in their ears. The Magi give but a terse and enigmatic description of their arrival in Bethlehem: “And arriv[ing] at evening, not a moment too soon / Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.” But after the encounter with the baby Jesus—which happens offstage—the Magi are unsettled. Their kingdoms, once longed-for, are now “alien” to them.

Beholding the mysterious, lowly birth of Christ generates the Magi’s unease. The King came in order to suffer; Christ was born in order to die, as Eliot’s poem hints with its allusions to Christ’s crucifixion and betrayers (“six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver”). Yet those who behold the Christ child taste death, as well: “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” Christ’s early worshippers exemplify the action to which God calls all his worshippers: Bowing down, worshipping, offering him their gifts, dying to themselves and their kingdoms for the sake of his kingdom. 

Christ came to die, and we, too, must die in order to live. As Gregory of Nyssa wrote concerning Advent, Christ’s birth “was accepted by Him for the sake of the death; for he who lives for ever did not sink down into the conditions of a bodily birth from any need to live, but to call us back from death to life.” Much of Eliot’s poetry after his conversion sounds and re-sounds this tune: The life of Christian faith, as Eliot represents in Four Quartets, ought to be a “lifetime’s death in love, / Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender,” a life that will cost “not less than everything.” As Eliot sings in “A Song for Simeon,” Christ’s followers “shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation.” 

As we enter the New Year, we would do well to remember the lessons of Epiphany, especially as Eliot presents them. The Magi who were “glad of another death,” in Eliot’s words, and “overjoyed” upon finding Jesus, in the words of Matthew, remind us of the otherworldly nature of our faith. We who claim to worship Christ ought to be uneasy in these old dispensations, among this alien people clutching the gods of individualism and success. We who claim to love the Christ child of Christmastide ought to bow in submission in the same manner as the Magi of Epiphany. 

Sarah Reardon writes from Philadelphia.

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Image by Edward Burne-Jones via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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