Today is the feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the three Magi who journeyed to find Jesus. Â Â This marks the last of the twelve days of Christmas, though frankly, Christmas has felt like a Â distant memory to me ever since I started back to school on Monday. Â Setting the alarm and getting up at dark o’clock is a real holiday buzzkill.
But enough complaining. Â 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. Â 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 Â a college seminar class. Â Eliot is not someone I read often, though a lot of his imagery makes me swoon with delight. Â 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. Â 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.” Â 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:Â “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” Â And when you read the poem, you see so clearly how this journey has changed the narrator. Â Things that were once comfortable are not so comfortable anymore. Â His old life doesn’t feel quite right. Â After the sacrifice and hardship of the journey, a journey which has Â 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? Â If we let ourselves be changed by the Incarnation and by the presence of Â Jesus, it’s bound to feel a little uncomfortable. Â 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. Â Maybe this means letting go of grudges that we would love to nurse forever. Â Maybe it means giving time or talent to serve people who can’t help themselves. Â 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. Â And though I haven’t encountered Christ in his infant form, as the Magi did, I encounter him every week at Mass. Â I meet him over and over in the people who cross my paths — at work, at home, in the mall, everywhere. Â And in every encounter, I’m challenged to let the old, petty me die so that a new, more generous me can be born. Â This is a lifelong process, honestly. Â It is a lesson that I learn and re-learn and re-re-learn. Â 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. Â It’s the first time I’ve ever heard his voice.)
Painting: Adoration of the Wise Men by Murillo