The Feast of the Epiphany
The Rev. Canon Dr. Robert CrouseSt. John’s Savannah, 2004
Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
“They departed into their own country another way.”
Thus, T.S. Eliot, great 20th Century American and English poet of
Wasteland, begins his first expressly Christian poem, “The Journey
of the Magi,” slightly paraphrasing a few lines from Lancelot Andrewes’
“Sermon for Christmas Day, 1622.” For Eliot, the newly-converted
poet, now five years after writing The Wasteland, just lately baptized
and confirmed, the ancient story of the Magi becomes a parable of conversion:
a parable of his own and every man’s pilgrimage to Christ. It’s a
journey through a wintry desert, with refractory camels and unreliable
camel-men, through hostile towns and cities, and “with the voices singing
in our ears, saying That this was all folly”. It’s the cold and hazardous
journey through the waste land to a new and different world.
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.
But what of the journey’s end, the destination? According to Eliot’s
imagination, the travellers arrive at dawn in a temperate valley, below
the snow-line; a valley “smelling of vegetation / with a running stream
and a water-mill beating the darkness / And three trees on a low sky.”
There’s an old white horse, galloping away in a meadow; there’s a tavern,
with vine-leaves over the door; and one can see, within, hands dicing for
pieces of silver, and feet kicking empty wine-skins. It’s a landscape
of symbols: as complex, as suggestive and as obscure as a Breugel painting.
There are symbols of new life and transformation, mixed with symbols of
betrayal, futility and death. It’s a world which, as Eliot says,
seems to have “no information” about its own meaning. It’s Jerusalem
below, Jerusalem in bondage with her children (Gal. 4). Its symbols
are fragments of a meaning which lies beyond it.
And so we move on, to discover – “at evening, and not a moment too soon,”
says the poet – behind the ambiguity of the symbols, a fundamental paradox,
in which life and death are strangely identified.
Birth and Death: Christ’s birth, our death; Christ’s death, our birth.
Terrible paradoxes, certainly; and they lie at the very heart of Christian
faith and life. Living we die, and dying, we live. Birth and
death are the two sides of every transformation, and Epiphany is about
a transformation. The Son of God is manifest, and “we all, with open
face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the
same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II
Cor. 3:18). “Changed into the same image”: transformed by adoration.
No longer conformed to this world, but (as St. Paul says: Rom 12:2)
“transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That renewing, that transformation
in us, is a continual dying and a continual rebirth. In Christ we
die, that we may live in him: that is the mystery of our redemption; that
is the mystery of this liturgy we celebrate. “For ye are dead,” says
St. Paul, “and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). That’s
the point that Eliot picks up in the concluding lines of his poem:
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.
Eliot’s meditation on the journey of the Magi is certainly very peculiar.
There’s no mention of the star, no mention of Herod and the scribes, no
mention of the gifts, and no mention – except very obliquely – even of
the mother and child. And yet, the poem grasps the essence of the
story: it’s the story of conversion, the story of faith’s journey through
the waste land, to find the Word of God behind all the ambiguities of human
words, to taste the life of God in bread and wine, to find death in life,
and life in death, to adore the mystery of divine love manifest, and to
be transformed thereby.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Thus, if The Wasteland was a meditation on the futility and failure
of desire, “The Journey of the Magi,” is about the redemption of desire,
the renewal of desire at a higher level of perception and aspiration, by
the grace of Christ’s Incarnation: “we all, with open face beholding as
in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from
glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” “No longer at
ease in the old dispensation”: transformed by adoration.
The Wasteland and “The Journey of the Magi” represent the two
sides of Christmas: the two sides liturgically represented in Advent and
Epiphany. Advent sets before us the divine judgement upon a God-forsaking,
and therefore seemingly God-forsaken world: “The Day of the Lord of hosts,”
cries the Prophet, “The Day of the Lord of Hosts shall be upon all pleasant
pictures” (or more literally, “upon all pictures of desire”) (Isa. 2:16).
That is the waste land. But it is to that ruined and ruinous world
that redemption comes: “When these things begin to come to pass,” says
Jesus, “then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth
nigh” (Luke 21:28). It is in the waste land that the divine
thunder speaks, it is in the wilderness that the Lord’s coming is prepared.
All that is Advent.
Epiphany, on the other side of Christmas, looks upon the glory of that
coming, now fulfilled: “we behold his glory,” says St. John, “the glory
as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
And all the lessons of this Epiphany season illustrate the facets of that
glory, manifest in signs and wonders: signs of divine wisdom and divine
power – Jesus with the doctors in the Temple; Jesus turning water into
wine at the wedding feast at Cana; Jesus healing the leper and the Centurion’s
servant – signs of the glory of God manifest in Jesus Christ. But
the vision of that glory is a transforming vision; we are transformed by
adoration: “changed into the same image…even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
“We returned to our places, these kingdoms / But no longer at ease here,”
says Eliot: no longer conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing
of our minds.
“Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” Where is the Son
of God, who comes to save us? Where is that Bread of Life for which
our spirits faint? Faith bids us find him, as it were, in a stable.
Faith bids us find the word of God in human words; faith bids us taste
the very life of God in elements of bread and wine; faith bids us meet
and serve the son of God in one another – in the least of these, his brethren;
to see and to declare his glory shining there. There, you see, in
Bethlehem for us, now and always. There in Epiphany for us; there
his glory shines, and there we make our gifts of adoration.
And so, if we make our own winter journey to Christ; if we do behold
our Lord and Saviour, there in Bethlehem, and adore him there, we do not
return unchanged. We do not return to Herod; transformed by adoration,
we go home “another way.”
“They departed into their own country another way.”