Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What the Magi Found

Journey of the Magi, Francesco Pesellino, 1446, Italy
This is written as part of a post-Christmas synchroblog: "So Jesus came . . . did you get what you expected?"  Other synchroblogs on this topic are linked at the end of this post. 

During this Advent season, I’ve been thinking about expectation, waiting, what we look toward, what we regret. Along the way, I’ve been reminded of T. S. Eliot’s "The Journey of the Magi", printed in 1927 just weeks after his baptism into the Anglican church at the age of 38. 
"'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was 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 gong 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."
The Journey of the Magi
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, France, 1894
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I found myself repeating “A hard time we had of it.” I had committed to a variety of adventures, and all had jolts and detours along the way.

I drove a friend home from her first semester of college, had great conversation along the way, then found myself driving in unfamiliar urban neighborhoods, trapped by one-way streets, wondering how I got there, wondering how I'd get home.

I went to drop off clothes for a friend in a half-way house and found myself driving in circles in an industrial wasteland, then standing toe-to-toe with a hostile security guard convinced I was attempting to defy contradictory instructions.

A morning I had set aside for Christmas baking vanished as I went to the second funeral in a matter of weeks. A trip to pick up a relative turned into a wrestling match with a defective refrigerator. Attempts to answer the call of welcome, hospitality, and sharing of others’ burdens seemed to take strange directions, until, like Eliot and his magi, I found voices singing in my ears, “saying that this was all folly.”

But the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight, and what seems folly can be wise in ways we can’t explain. There were moments I regretted, and days I knew it would have been easier to stay home, but as Eliot's poem reminded me, the journey toward knowing Christ always has a cost.  
"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."
Adoration of the Magi,
Edward Burne-Jones, 1887, tapestry, England
Eliot’s poem captures a vision of almost surreal significance, a place of unexpected beauty, of flowing water, and three trees that suggest the three crosses ahead. The vine-leaves call to mind Christ’s insistence that he is the vine, but spread over the lintel, they also call to mind the story of Pentecost: the death of a sacrifice that protected God’s people from the death of their firstborn sons. The silver echoes the exchange of silver at Christ’s betrayal, the wine-skins hint at the new wine Jesus promised. The white horse in the meadow: is that a promise of something still to come, Christ on a white horse? Yet the horse, free as it is, is old. It doesn't line up neatly, but neither did the prophecies. 

The magi, looking back, remembers that sense of seeking ("there was no information"), of arrival ("not a moment too soon"), of certainty – a certainty that can only be hinted at, not explained: “it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

The description of the magi’s arrival brings to mind other passages from Eliot: the moments when time seems to stand still, the sudden bursts of clarity that defy words, yet illuminate all that went before and after.

Eliot’s biographers describe a moment from his own faith journey that seems to echo the magi’s experience. The year before his baptism, Eliot and his wife Vivienne traveled through Rome with her brother and his wife. In St. Peter’s Cathedral, they encountered Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Eliot, to the surprise and embarrassment of his companions, sank to his knees in apparent adoration.

I find myself wondering – what did Eliot see in Michelangelo's work that cut through his skepticism? And what did the magi find when they came to the end of their journey? How did they know they had found the one their ancient prophecies promised? Artists like to put halos around the heads of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I’m sure there were no halos. Instead, my guess is they found an ordinary-looking child, a simple mother, a non-descript dad, piecing together life like the rest of us, washing dishes, sweeping the floor, wondering what to do next.

Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Rome
That’s how my Christmas came and went: lots of cooking, cleaning, quick conversations, wondering how the floor could be covered in crumbs when I just put the broom away. And in the middle of the mundane, the luminous moments: lovely little girls dancing to “Mary Did You Know?” Our delightful smallest family member, belting out “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Thoughtful cards to every family member, with a first-grader’s carefully printed “I love you.” Unexpected laughter. Inexplicable tears. 

The refrain, behind, around every interaction: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life.” “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”
"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have 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."
Literary analysts have had a field day with Eliot’s poem, the unexpected regret, the description of difficulty, and wonder if the poem suggests ambivalence on Eliot’s part regarding his conversion and baptism. What’s all this about birth and death? About being ill at ease? About looking toward another death?

Did the magi find what he expected? Did Eliot?

Did we?

I find the magi's sense of displacement strangely familiar. Those who think Christianity is simplistic or straightforward have somehow missed the journey. It starts in simple expectation, travels through doubt and difficulty to death, then leaves us strangers where once we felt at home. We set aside one set of gods, only to see ourselves clutching others. Free of one kingdom, we camp out in another, not yet to the place we were hoping to find, not yet the people we were hoping to be.

The deeper my faith goes, the greater the questions. Why did God allow the slaughter of the innocents, triggered by the magis’ search? Were those infant deaths part of the plan, “Rachel crying for her children, because they were no more?” How could the prince of peace also bring a sword?
The Magi, He Qi, 2001, Nanjing

And the longer the journey, the more need I see for death of the kind the magi discovered: death to the old gods, the old self, the old dispensation. Death to wanting it my way. Craving my own peace, that has nothing to do with love.

But that death is a birth. 

If you need it wrapped neatly with a bow, forget poetry. Forget mystery. I'm tempted to say - and will - forget faith.

As the old year dies, as the new year emerges, I wait to see what God has in store. I wait to see what will need to die next, what expectations will be set aside.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Blog posts by others asking "Jesus came: did you get what you expected":

     Glenn Hager – Underwear For Christmas
     Jeremy Myers – The Unexpected Gift From Jesus
     Tammy Carter  - Unstuck
     Christine Sine – The Wait Is Over – What Did I Get?
     Maria Kettleson Anderson – Following The Baby We Just Celebrated 

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