02 Jan 2022

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

Some of you may know T.S. Eliot’s dramatic poem The Journey of the Magi, which he wrote in 1927 over half a bottle of gin.[i]It’s an unusual account of the expedition and its aftermath, told in the voice of one of the kings. Perhaps what attracted Eliot to the story was his own conversion to Christianity in that same year: like the three wise men he had found what his heart most deeply desired, but only after a tough journey. Like them, he found this changed everything so that, in the words of our Gospel, they went home by “a different way” (Mt 2:1-12). Eliot’s poem highlights the journey’s many discomforts:

‘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, sore-footed, 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 anting 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.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

It’s a situation familiar enough to anyone on a journey of faith—searching for meaning, discerning vocation, going through some transition, facing up to suffering, or just feeling like Eliot’s cursing and grumbling cameleers. At one time or another we all face ways deep or weather sharp, colleagues deserting or places unwelcoming, voices judging us as foolish.

The Three Wise Men present their gifts, mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

But then our narrating magus says something unexpected:
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Satisfactory’ is a jarring word here. To meet the desire of nations, king of kings, Creator made creature, Saviour of the world, and say it was ‘satisfactory’ seems, well, unenthusiastic. Perhaps Eliot used understatement to indicate the king was underwhelmed by this supposed king and His accommodation; or to suggest he was overwhelmed and lost for words. Maybe it was both, the man’s thinking ambiguous and feelings ambivalent. Our Gospel tells us that at the sight of the Christ-child the magi were elated with joy but they also fell down in awe and trembling.

The ambivalence of our magus continues in Eliot’s 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;

There was the birth of the Christ-child, of course, hinted at in the references to the lack of shelters and towns unfriendly, the vine and the capital-B Eliot uses for Birth. But there was also a hint of death—of the crucifixion of Christ foretold in the three trees on Eliot’s horizon, in the men dicing for pieces of silver, and perhaps in that word ‘satisfactory’ hinting at the satisfaction, reparation or atonement of Christ’s death (cf. 2Sam 12:13-14; Jn 3:16; 2Cor 5:21; Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9; Col 1:22; Heb 9:22; 10:10; 1Pet 1:18-19). But it also hints at the birth of Christianity and the death of the old religion to which the magi had previously belonged. 

Something of the same ambivalence is the lot of every pilgrim. The Second Vatican Council celebrated all the ways that faith, hope and love bring fulfilment to the human person and community, and renewal to the world. But it also taught that as Christians make their way to God, they are “pilgrims in a strange land, following in trial and oppression the paths Christ trod” (LG 7). The Pilgrim People “carries the mark of this passing world and dwells among creatures that groan and travail as they await the revelation of the children of God”.[ii] During this in-between time, between Christ’s first Advent and His last, we experience both the presence and absence of God, the now-and-not-yet-ness of His kingdom. We see in our Church and world so much that is good yet still imperfect, noble but needing reform. We are called ‘children of God’ but have not yet appeared with Christ in glory.

So the magi return home. We might expect they’d long remain overjoyed by what they had seen. But instead, Eliot suggests, they found themselves out of sorts. Our narrator continues:

…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.

How often in modernity do we Christians find ourselves, like this old king, dislocated from aspects of our culture? It might be the secularist antipathy to God and believers; or the consumerist reduction of human beings to producers and accumulators; or the manufactured outrage and unforgiving of the culture of indignation; or the willingness to kill the unborn, elderly, sick and disabled… : Like the magus we can experience the kind of ‘cognitive dissonance’ that is told on the tomb of St Mary MacKillop in a quote from her: “Remember we are but travellers here”.

To be pilgrims, then, requires detachment. The magi could not bring their palaces, retinues and comforts on their journey. The same applies to us: we have to let go of any securities, prejudices or vices that hold us back from committing ourselves fully to the life of God’s kingdom. In the ‘hard and bitter agony’ of dying to self, pilgrims learn to appreciate what’s best in the world around them and contribute to this, all the while remembering this is not our final destination and so we must avoid being too attached. Most importantly, like the Magi we search for something greater than anything in their palaces, something ‘out of this world’. The epiphany or showing-forth of God in the Christmas Babe is the answer to every human longing but points us also to a fulfilment beyond this life of crosses and satisfaction, to that life when at last we shall see God face to face.


St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

A warm welcome to you all to this Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and all the blessings of this new year of grace 2022. Though our choir is in summer recess at this time, and the latest wave of COVID means many are still staying away, we are grateful to be free to gather to celebrate the appearance of our infant Lord. As today we recall the first wise ones to set out on pilgrimage to discover the infant Jesus, to fall down in adoration and give Him their all, we repent of the times we’ve failed to live our faith with similar enthusiasm…

[i] In Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974). It is read by Eliot himself at https://poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi/. For background see: https://interestingliterature.com/2016/12/a-short-analysis-of-t-s-eliots-journey-of-the-magi/

[ii] LG 48; cf. Rom 8:19-22; LG 21 & 50; GS 45 & 57.