Today we celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. After worshipping Him and offering gifts, Matthew tells us, “Having been warned in a dream, they left for their own country by another road.” This is the last we hear of the Magi in Scripture, but do you ever wonder what happened when they returned home? They travelled a long way to Bethlehem and found the King they were looking for. Then what?
The poet T.S. Eliot pondered this same question. In a poem written not long after his own conversion experience, Eliot gives voice to one of the Magi, looking back on that dividing day between then and now, between belief and unbelief, between old life and new:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and
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
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
All this was a long time ago, I
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,
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
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
(For a real treat, listen to Eliot reading the poem himself)
Its easy to forget amid the sweet nativity scenes and sentimental carols that the Incarnation was a turn-the-world- upside-down event. It had King Herod quaking in his boots, and all Jerusalem with him. Jesus’ birth challenged not only the political and religious powers of the day, but also irrevocably changed the lives of every person who encountered Him. The shepherds, Simeon, Anna, the Magi — none would ever be the same. Eliot’s poem is a fiction full of truth about life after the drama of encountering God. It is a contemplation of the Day After the Altar Call. What now? What next?
After finding and worshipping Jesus, the Magi went back to their own country, to their old lives, surrounded by the very people who mocked their journey. If these folks thought it was crazy to follow a star in search of a king, can you imagine what they said when they heard He was found in a manger in backwater village? No, this was no triumphal return. In addition to the ridicule, these pilgrims were “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” They were strangers in their own homeland.
Encountering God can have an unsettling effect on our lives. It is a thing of mystery and incomparable beauty. But it isn’t only that. It is a seismic event, leaving chasms where before there were only cracks that could be ignored. It is a destabilizing thing, casting “certain” things into doubt; making “essential” things dispensable; making us feel not quite at home anymore, among alien people clutching their gods. Freeing us, certainly, from things we’re desperate to leave behind. But also asking us to leave behind “the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbet,” pleasures and comforts and seemingly good things to make room for … well, for what? We don’t always know what God will fill those spaces with, and that makes it especially hard to leave them behind.
What now? How do we live with one foot in 2016 and one in eternity? How do we honor the God we have come to know in a world that is often indifferent at best and at worst, openly hostile to Him? What does it look like to consecrate ourselves to God while living a (worldly) life that has its own rhythms and demands? What death will my new life require?
So many questions. When I get overwhelmed with questions, I remember the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, often used as part of New Year’s worship services.
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.
These words quiet my soul and bring me back to the simple and explosive truth of my faith. Whatever is past, whatever is next, whatever is born, whatever dies, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it.