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Epiphany of the Lord
January 7, 2024

Watch this homily! (Begins at 45:38)


     The Magi, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod returned home by another way.” Thus does the story of this mysterious visit of the Magi to the Christ child come to an end. But I think that there is a sense in which the Magi never returned home at all, or maybe it would be better to say that, when they got there, “home” was quite a different place. After all they had seen and heard, how could it ever have been the same? “Home is where the heart is”, it is often said. But what happens when the heart has changed…?

     In a poem called “The Journey of the Magi,” the great twentieth-century poet, T. S. Eliot, makes this point more eloquently than I ever could, so I’m going to read it for you. But let me warn you in advance that Eliot didn’t see the Magi in the way we often do: exotic figures draped in the brocaded elegance of expensive Christmas cards. Eliot saw them differently, much differently. A Christmas card his poem is not, and if there is even a glimmer of joy in the poem, it’s not easy to find. But there is this humorous note: Eliot claimed, long years after writing it, that he did so after church one Sunday with the help of a half bottle of gin! I’m not sure whether that explains the brilliance of the poem or the darkness. Maybe both!

       It’s written in the form of a soliloquy - a reflection, and a rather wistful one, that Eliot puts in the mouth of one of the Magi long years after the journey that had taken him and his companions so very far from home.

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 wanting their liquor and women,
And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelter,
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 arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may 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.

     Following the Bethlehem star was costly for the Magi. Finding the child, the divine child, though awesome, changed everything for them. The birth they encountered, for all its wonder, had hints of death. The wood of the manger wasn’t far removed from the wood of the cross, as the early Church Fathers were fond of saying. That’s why I began by saying that the Magi never really returned home after they found the child. They were too changed by what they saw for home ever to be home again.

     And you and I? We, too, journey in search of the child. Once again this year we have followed the star, made our trek to the Christmas manger. If we have opened our eyes at all and let down the bars of our hearts, we have seen the child, the Christ. Can we ever be the same? I think not. I hope not. Because Christmas doesn’t stop with just seeing the child. Children are demanding, and this is a child who makes some incredible demands. This child will tell us to leave home and family and all the trappings of comfort and security. This child, surrounded by the Magi’s lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, will tell us to go and sell whatever treasure it is we have and then to come and follow him.

     My friends, the story of the Magi has many levels of meaning and I have preached on them in other years. More than anything, the story is meant to remind us of just how wide is God’s embrace: it is broad enough to include all peoples, including the most foreign of foreigners, however you may choose to define “foreigner.” No one — absolutely no one – is excluded from God’s embrace.

     Today, however, I have chosen to take a slightly more personal and even more literal look at the story. If, like the Magi, we set out on the great search, there is indeed a prize to be found. A wondrous prize. But there is also a price to be paid. At the end of the star is a child like no other. And this child will make demands like no other. This child will change the way we look at everything.

     As T.S. Eliot put it, we will no longer quite be at ease here in “the old dispensation.” Certain things about this world of ours will begin to be alien to us, we will be drawn in directions we’d never dreamed of, and we may never quite go “home” again…

Father Michael G. Ryan





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