The Magi and I


On the Twelfth Day of Christmas and on the Eve of Epiphany I thought I would re-post this. It still speaks to me and for me.

This is T.S. Eliot’s majestic poem Journey of the Magi with my quasi-interpretation of it. And it’s more than an interpretation — it’s also a kind of autobiographical confession. For I too have had a hard time of it…and like Eliot’s Magi I would do it all over again.

Journey of the Magi
by 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.

The Magi and I
by Brian Zahnd

An old Magi remembers his hard journey from long ago.
A hard time we had of it
He doesn’t regret it. He says—
I would do it again
Finding the King of the Jews came with a price.
To be a witness of this Birth was to also experience a particular Death.
(The Magi had thought birth and death were different, but came to find out otherwise.)
Once you get even an inkling of what it really means that Jesus is King—
Nothing is ever quite the same. Some things will die. For sure.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensations,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Ain’t it the truth!
I know that when I really began to see the Kingdom of God for what it is—
Cherished assumptions about the nation and life I call mine had to die.
I was no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.
Well, consider this:
When the Magi made their way home, we’re told they went by “another way.”
Of course they did.
Once you see the King, once you have the Epiphany—
You have to travel through this life by “another way.”
(Or betray all you have been granted to see.)
And to an “alien people clutching their gods”—
You will seem at best odd, and at worse…well, something quite bad.
Truth doesn’t come cheap.
The hard journey to a real Epiphany will cost you more than some…
Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It will cost you the way you look at the world.
Something will have to die. And you may well mourn it.
To really see the birth of Christ for what it is,
Will bring you face to face with death—
Death to what you were once so comfortable with.
Eliot’s Magi concludes his memoir with this enigmatic line—
I should be glad of another death.
What does Eliot mean by that?
I’m not entirely sure, but I think he means his Magi to say something like this:
I’m ready even for more,
More Epiphanies,
More Births,
More Stars in the East…
Which will of course lead to more Deaths.
That’s the way it works.
The birth of truth is death to the lie—
And there are a lot of lies we’ve leaned to love and cherish.
The price of truth may be the willingness to endure a certain sorrow—
The sorrow that comes from the death of a loved and cherished lie.

Do you have any idea what I’m saying?
If you think finding Christ means nothing more than adding him to your life—
(as one would add an insurance policy with death benefits to their life)
—you haven’t yet had the real Epiphany, the Epiphany the old magi speaks of.

Christ is not something that will nicely accommodate your cherished assumptions.
Christ is the most radical thing that has ever happened to this world.
To see Christ as Christ, the King of the Jews who is now King of the World—
Is to realize that Caesar is not Lord, Pharaoh is not Lord, but Jesus is Lord.

Jesus cannot be owned or incorporated or subsumed into any other nation—
Not Babylon, not Egypt, not Rome, not Russia, not England, not America.
Jesus is building his own nation (kingdom)—it’s the Kingdom of God.
Christ does not come to endorse any nation—he comes to set up his own.
But the nations of the world—all of them!—will resist this.

Because every nation insists that national sovereignty trumps everything.
As long as nations believe that their national sovereignty trumps everything—
They’ll be at war with Christ. Christ insists that his lordship trumps everything!

So to see the birth of Christ for the Epiphany it is—
Is not only to witness a Birth, it is to encounter a Death:
The death of loved and cherished lies. (Oh yes, there are lies we dearly love!)

What are these lies? I can’t tell you. You love them too much.
You have to see these lies as lies for yourself.
But I can tell you what will happen when you see the lies…

When you see the lies, you’ll no longer be at home in Babylon.
(All the nations of the world insisting on their own sovereignty add up to one big Babylon.)
To have the Epiphany of which I speak will make you an alien in your own land.

As Eliot said, you will no longer be at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
The old magi says, “I should be glad of another death.”
What about you? Are you ready for the Birth of the New?—
If it means the Death of the Old?


PS: It may be worth noting that I wrote this five years ago.

(The artwork is Journey of the Magi by James Jacques Joseph Tissot)