Journey of the Magi

The Epiphany, by its nature, is enigmatic. On the 6th January every year, the 12th Day of Christmas (depending on when you start counting), we celebrate the visit of the wise men from the east to see the baby king in the stable with his mother and father, bringing their gifts. We call it The Epiphany because it represents the recognition of God’s coming by the Gentile (that’s us) world. ‘Epiphany’, that moment of sudden awakening or realisation.

But what was realised? Who noticed? Notoriously, Herod became furious when he realised he was tricked by the magi, and sent his soldiers to slaughter all the boys aged two and under in and around Bethlehem, perhaps between six and twenty children, in the hope of killing the baby Jesus and eliminating any competition for his throne.

But apart from the magi and the shepherds, we are not told of anyone else having a clue about the significance of Jesus’ birth. Some ‘epiphany’!

TS Eliot, in his famous poem ‘Journey of the Magi’, takes up this theme of the enigmatic nature of the Epiphany, telling it as a story seen from the perspective of the magi. But it is a journey riddled with pain, difficulty, and disappointment. There are moments that flicker with hope, ‘Then at dawn…’, but they soon fade back into the grey dampness of the cold world. They wander, searching, through the valley of the shadow of Christ’s death, unknowingly, until they reach their moment of ‘epiphany’: ‘It was (you may say) satisfactory’ in the most underwhelming of climaxes.

The journey, however, is for us. We are Eliot’s magi, on what seems a hard, bitter, and foolish journey with almost nothing to show at the end, except a morsel of bread made from flour from ‘the mill beating the darkness’, and the wine from ‘the vines-leaves over the lintel’ and the ’empty wine-skins’ being kicked under the table. But the encounter changes us, and we are left having died and been born again, no longer at peace with the idolatry of the world around us, waiting, longing for the old white horse in the meadow to, at last, carry its white rider…

The Bewcastle benefice sermon for the first Sunday of Epiphany (2024) can be found here.

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