24 December 2010

The Journey That Christmas Means

In high school, before my brain was fully formed, I first encountered and hated a certain poem. Later when I figured out what it meant, I once even prevailed on my bishop to let me read it from the pulpit as part of a Christmas program, knowing and savoring the probability that some in the congregation might hate it the way I first did. But anything's better than boredom, right?

This Christmas Eve will be different from most I've had in the past. The kids are elsewhere, the rest of my family is far away. Shortly I will be singing with friends in some wonderful Christmas Eve services unlike those I was brought up with.

It's a good time to ponder and reflect. A good time to go back to this poem I used to hate, but which I now love, and which I'd like to share. I like it because it's not the standard soft, gauzy, sweet-Christmas-carol-in-the-background sentimental sappy treacly retelling of its story. It's rough, gritty, and probably a lot more true to what really happened to the people involved than most other recitations. There are two basic flavors to the Christmas story, you know, and for some reason I've always liked the one about the three kings better than the one about the shepherds.

Naturally, this version was written by the great sage T.S. Eliot. And the thing which most offended me at first about it is now the centerpiece of its meaning that I like the best. Fortunately I've grown up a bit since the days when I was a Boy Scout and sang with my friends "We three kings of Orient are trying to light a loaded cigar. Bang!"

No, I understand things a little better now. Including this poem. Paradoxically, for a Christmas story, it ends by saying that "another death" would be welcome. It wasn't till years after I first read it that I understood what Eliot meant. Not the physical death of someone, but the death of the short-term-focused, self-indulgent, temporal, "natural man" as a result of the journey which the poem describes. In favor of the birth of something--someone--better, higher, loftier. Or at least capable of trying for it. It's the story of one journey, but it's also an allegory for life, and what I believe the Savior makes possible for those who will listen to His message. I hope it will add a new and unique facet to your Christmas.

The Journey of the Magi
by 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, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
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.

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