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The Journey of the Magi
T. S. Eliot
‘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, sorefooted, 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 wanting 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.
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 the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
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.
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.


This poem by T. S. Eliot was first published in 1927. Eliot imagines the Epiphany story, the journey of the kings from the East to the infant Christ. He brings that journey to life with vivid details of the difficulties the kings encountered on the way –tired camels lying down in the melted snow, dirty and expensive accommodations in the villages, fires going out in the cold night, grumbling helpers. There are times when the Magi regret the “summer palaces” they left behind, and when they are haunted by the voices that told them “this was all folly”--this following of a star.
But everything changes when they arrive. Listening to the poem, you might wonder—did they ever arrive?  There is no mention of the baby Jesus, no hint of Mary and Joseph, no description of the stable or the manger or any of the familiar elements of the Christmas scene. Instead, Eliot says, in a masterpiece of understatement, they found “the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”
But even though Eliot does not mention Jesus or Mary, he doesn’t really need to. Everything speaks of the Christian story. As they draw near their destination, there is a “running stream,” “three trees on the low sky,” “an old white horse”—images that evoke Baptism, the three crosses on Calvary, and the white horse of the Book of Revelation. The Magi see “vine leaves,” hands throwing dice, and “empty wine skins”—more imagery that recalls the parables and the passion of Christ. As the Magi approach “the place,” they are surrounded by reminders of the Passion that the newborn Jesus will eventually undergo.
The last part of the poem makes that paradox explicit. “Were we led all that way for / Birth or Death?... I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different.” This is the paradox of Christmas, which Eliot’s Magi experience: in a sense, the Passion of Jesus begins with his birth. That paradox is captured so well in the familiar carol: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, / How Jesus the Savior was born for to die.”
This is a pretty long poem, so I want to keep the commentary short. Just one more point. Eliot drew his inspiration from a 17th century Anglican divine, Lancelot Andrewes. On Christmas Day, 1622, Andrewes preached a sermon before King James. His subject was the Magi. I want to end with some of Andrewes’ words, which inspired Eliot’s wonderful poem.
“Consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in ‘the very dead of winter.’
And we, what should we have done?... Come such a journey at such a time? No; put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.  To Christ we cannot travel, but weather and way and all must be fair. If not, no journey.….
We cannot say ‘we have seen His star’; the star is gone long since, not now to be seen. Yet I hope for all that, ‘we come to worship.’ Let the same day-star be risen in our hearts that was in theirs. For then it will bring us whither it brought them, to Christ.
Merry Christmas!




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