T.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.