The Journey of the Magi: Christ Must Change Us (Poems for Christmas #2)

journey-of-the-magiT.S. Eliot, the versatile American (later British) poet who wrote both “The Wasteland” and the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats also wrote what I consider to be the best Christmas poem in the history of ever that is not W.H. Auden’s magnificent book-length oratorio For the Time Being. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” is much shorter—just 43 lines, into which the remarkable poet packs pretty much everything that matters about the meaning of Christmas.

The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is one of the Three Wise Men, or Magi, who travel from Eastern lands to visit the baby Jesus. It is a hard journey, a really hard journey—which is pretty much all that the poem is about.

Here are the opening lines:

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, sorefooted, 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.

It is a hard journey all the way there, but once they arrive, they discover that the really hard part hasn’t even started. It will come when they return to their countries, knowing that everything about their lives will have to change. After having seen Christ, they can never go back to their old ways, their old beliefs, prejudices, rivalries, and societies. The last lines go like this:

                                                  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.

I love this poem because it speaks to what I have come to see as the two most important principles of the spiritual journey to Christ that forms the basis of Christian discipleship: 1) that it is really, really, really hard; and 2) that it has to change everything about our lives

Actually, these two principles form a single truth: discipleship requires that we be something other than the standard-issue human being. Human nature, as it evolved under the harsh pressure of natural selection, is fundamentally selfish. We care about ourselves. To a lesser extent, we care about the packages that carry our genes. And to an even lesser extent, we care about those who have resources that we want to share. Beyond that, we are tribal, exclusive, petty, carnal, sensual, devilish, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The journey to Christ takes a lifetime of hard work—and once we finally make it, limping and panting, we find that everything just gets harder from there. Now we have to do the really hard work of changing from the inside out. We have to give up everything else that we want—things like money and stuff, for starters, but that’s the easy part. We also have to give up things like approval, prejudice, enemies, resentment, and outrage. These are all old and alien gods that we can no longer clutch.

If we can’t do this, we haven’t made the journey. Not really. We have gone somewhere else that maybe looks like Bethlehem: a night at Baby Jesus Theatre, perhaps, or a meeting of the Jesus Fan Club. We can be Christ’s Number 1 Fan without having to change. We can wear the T-shirt and shout the slogans. But we can’t be disciples.

The New Testament is very clear on this point: we can only have the Kingdom of God if we are willing to give up everything that is not the Kingdom of God. This is not transactional; it is definitional: having the Kingdom of God means no longer wanting anything else. It means a long journey in difficult weather with uncooperative camels. And it means never being at ease in any other world.

Comments

  1. I love this series. Thank you

  2. “We also have to give up things like approval, prejudice, enemies, resentment, and outrage. These are all old and alien gods that we can no longer clutch.” Sunday was the 40th anniversary of my baptism. This OP makes me question have I done this, have I made the journey? Sobering thought to contemplate. I’m not sure I like the answer. Thank you, I think.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I too am loving the series. I was completely unfamiliar with this poem. I love the camels lying down in the snow, and regretting the silken girls bringing sherbet.

  4. it's a series of tubes says:

    Michael, this is very timely for me. Thank you. For some time now, I have been feeling that I should be glad of another death. Time to recalibrate.

  5. This was necessary today. Bless you.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this post a lot today, especially the third to the last paragraph. Is it even possible for us to achieve grace through a “lifetime of hard work” If that is the way we approach it I think we will unavoidably fall short because of our pride in the achievement. It would appear that the Kingdom of God is something only gained as a gift from Christ, with our full awareness that we were given it and not that we earned it. We can try to approach it through our efforts but must always fall short on that basis. I agree with most of the post that the Kingdom is other than the rest of the world. We just can’t get there from here through anything we can do.

  7. I love this so much, Mike. Keep ’em coming!

  8. Sheldon, I agree, sort of. While I was writing this post last night, I was reading Bonhoeffer’s _The Cost of Discipleship_. The first draft had several quotes from that work that did not survive the deep need of blog posts to be under 100 words. Bonhoeffer talks about the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He takes great pains to distinguish the latter from the idea that we can achieve salvation through our work, but he also makes clear that we cannot simply label salvation a gift and be done with it. Discipleship has its costs.

    I like the way that he frames the cost, though, not so much as “work,” but as sacrifice. I tried to move that direction in my own post. Costly grace has a cost. Otherwise it would be cheap grace. But the cost is primarily what we give up, not what we do. (Except that, clearly, giving something up IS doing something). What I have tried to suggest (and I think Bonhoeffer would agree) is that the relationship is “not transactional, but definitional,” which is to say that God does not reward us with the Kingdom as a result of our efforts, or our sacrifices, or anything else. Rather, if we do not sacrifice everything else, what we have will not, by definition, be the Kingdom of God.

  9. Michael. Thanks for the clarification. I have always liked the distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. I think that the greatest difficulty for us as disciples is the avoidance of our pride in being disciples. The parable of the workers coming late to the vineyard hits at the heart of that problem. I don’t think we can surmount that difficulty on our own, it has to be given to us. It is still grace.

  10. Sorry, but I have never regretted the silken girls bringing sherbet. I guess I haven’t made the journey.

  11. some really hard truths here that make me question my own progress toward discipleship — but I’m glad you’ve provided this means for introspection. Merry Christmas!

  12. EnglishTeacher says:

    T.S. Eliot’s a master at illustrating the complexities that accompany conversion to truth–and accepting answers after years of questions and anxiety that surrounds the search for life’s meaning. This poem in this post, paired with Ash Wednesday, have both been akin to personal scripture for me, even though much of Eliot’s philosophy applied to Anglican tradition; I still find it so resonant with Mormon experience that I continue to return to his poetry year after year and discover more and more significance with each visit. Excellent post.