Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

Adoration of the Magi by Velazquez

Adoration of the Magi by Velazquez

A rerun of a post from — wow — 2011.  I guess I’ve been blogging for a while, haven’t I?

January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the three Magi who journeyed to find Jesus.    This marks the last of the twelve days of Christmas, though frankly, Christmas has felt like a  distant memory to me ever since I started back to school earlier this week.  Setting the alarm and getting up at dark o’clock is a real holiday buzzkill.

But enough complaining.  Since it’s the Epiphany, I’m going to get all spiritual here and talk about one of my favorite poems, “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot.  I’ve read lots of his writings over the years, notably his very long poem “The Waste Land,” which we studied for a few weeks (it’s that kind of poem) in  a college seminar class.   Eliot is not someone I read often, though a lot of his imagery makes me swoon with delight.  But “Journey of the Magi” — well, that’s one I read and re-read every holiday season.

It’s narrated by one of the Magi, reflecting on his trip to find the infant Jesus.  It wasn’t an easy trip; there was lots of sacrifice, and discomfort, and “times we regretted/The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,/And the silken girls bringing sherbet.”  And then, finally, he and his fellow travelers find the place where Jesus lives, and they see him, and he describes it as being “satisfactory.”

But then … in the last stanza, there’s a question, which goes right to the heart of the poem: “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”  And when you read the poem, you see so clearly how this journey has changed the narrator.  Things that were once comfortable are not so comfortable anymore.  His old life doesn’t feel quite right.  After the sacrifice and hardship of the journey, a journey which has  changed him without him even realizing it, he no longer feels at home in the life he used to lead.

That’s pretty much the Gospel message right there, isn’t it?  If we let ourselves be changed by the Incarnation and by the presence of  Jesus, it’s bound to feel a little uncomfortable.  The Gospel message challenges us to color outside the boundaries of our lives, to journey further into love and sacrifice than we’d go on our own.   Maybe this means letting go of grudges that we would love to nurse forever.  Maybe it means giving time or talent to serve people who can’t help themselves.  Maybe it means giving those of a different political or theological stripe the benefit of the doubt instead of shunting them into the category of Other. Overall, it means having a generosity of spirit, which is something that I often fail at doing.

But I try; I really do.   And though I haven’t encountered Christ in his infant form, as the Magi did, I encounter him every week at Mass.  I meet him over and over in the people who cross my paths — at work, at home, in the mall, everywhere.   And in every encounter, I’m challenged to let the old, petty me die so that a new, more generous me can be born.  This is a lifelong process, honestly.  It is a lesson that I learn and re-learn and re-re-learn.  And this poem is one of the ways — an especially beautiful one, at this time of year — that I am reminded to keep on trying.

(Note to poetry geeks: on this website you can listen to a recording of Eliot reading his own poem.)

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