In Your Midst

Image of the Divine

Xmas 2006

Were we led all that way for Birth or for Death?

The Three Wise Men Charles ConnickThe Cathedral’s north transept windows tell the story of the Nativity in glorious color and light.  In the center is the Holy Family in the stable at Bethlehem.  On the left we see the shepherds, kneeling in adoration, and on the right, the three wise men, sumptuously robed, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (note the thurible in the foreground and the abundant incense winding its way heavenwards).

The Magi have long captured the imagination of artists.  How was it these learned men had the vision and imagination to leave everything they knew for a sight of the “newborn king of the Jews”?

The 17th-century Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes preached on the subject of the Magi in the presence of King James on Christmas Day, 1622.  “It was no summer progress,” he said. “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... Sorry for nothing so much as that they could not be there soon enough, with the very first, to do it even this day, the day of His birth.”

He goes on to draw a comparison with ourselves.  Would we have been willing to make such a journey?  “And we, what should we have done? … Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better traveling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.”

The 20th-century Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh offers a different take on the three wise men in his novel Helena.  Unlike Lancelot Andrewes, his heroine sees the Magi as arriving late.  “You are my special patrons,” she says, “patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, all who are confused by knowledge and speculation… of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.” She concludes her reflections with a prayer:  “for his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

The great poet (and Anglican convert) T. S. Eliot offers a different interpretation of the wise men.  His poem “The Journey of the Magi” is famous for its understated tone:  “… 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.”

He goes on to imagine the homecoming of the Magi.  What did they do with the vision they had seen?  How did they live out what they had learned?  It’s food for thought as we approach Christmas:

…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.

Maria Laughlin is the Director of Stewardship and Development at St. James Cathedral.

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