Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. That word means manifestation or appearance, and what we celebrate is the appearance of Jesus Christ here on earth, the Son of God and Savior of the world.
In our first reading this weekend, Isaiah the Prophet describes that appearance and sums up God’s entire plan of salvation: That Christ, the Son of God and Light of the World would come to redeem and illumine the nation of Israel, and then from there to shine out to all the nations of the world:
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.
This coming of the nations, the great gathering of kings to adore the Christ, the glory of Israel, is the scene we are given in St. Matthew’s Gospel today. The Magi travel a great distance from the east to see that manifestation, that appearance of Christ.
And if it can be said that Christmas is God’s coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ, then Epiphany in many ways indicates our coming to Him. Like those Magi from the east, we come out of ourselves and set out on that journey towards Christ, responding to the manifestation of the Child born for us in Bethlehem.
But one of the challenges to a gospel passage like the one we hear today is that it can become almost too familiar. We have all heard the story of the Magi since we were children. We have seen hundreds of Christmas cards with the three Wise Men on them. But that journey we hear of in St. Matthew’s gospel would not have been an easy one. It would not have been a Christmas card. It would have been long and arduous, a journey involving sacrifice and determination.
And so is the story of our own journey of faith. It is never easy to let go of the things of this world and to seek out Christ. The journey of faith is often a difficult one, involving sacrifice and ongoing conversion.
One of the more famous converts to the Christian faith in the last century was the great author and poet T. S. Eliot. Born in St. Louis Missouri, he enjoyed tremendous success as a writer both here and throughout Europe. He was a student of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, yet converted to Christianity in his late 30’s. That conversion took many of his contemporaries by surprise. Perhaps many of them were not ready for that T.S. Eliot.
Whatever his personal experience might have been, it is a well-known fact that his initial conversion was not an easy one. Less than two months after he was baptized into the Anglican Church, he wrote one of his most profound and personal poems, “Journey of the Magi.” Generally accepted as an autobiographical account of his own conversion to the Christian faith, he describes that journey we heard about from St. Matthew’s gospel:
'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 shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
It is a sobering account indeed of how those Wise Men may have experienced that journey on their way to Bethlehem. It describes T.S. Eliot’s own difficulty, letting go of a world that was so familiar, and embracing an entirely new way of life in Christ. He encountered trials and difficulties within and without; opposition from the people around him who no longer understood him, and opposition from within, having to embrace that internal struggle of faith that is indicative of every disciple of Christ. He continues:
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.
Did the magi ever think to themselves: “This is all folly”? Did they ever doubt the decision they made to follow that star and leave everything else behind? Did they ever ask themselves: “Is it all worth it?”
As a priest, not infrequently people will say to me, “I am trying to follow Christ, and trying to do the right thing, but it seems so often that things get more complicated and difficult instead. Why are things so hard, then, if I am trying to follow Christ and do the right thing?”
I always want to say—I usually don’t, but I want to say, “Maybe things are sometimes difficult because you are following Christ.” Jesus always did the right thing. He always said what needed to be said. And look what happened to Him! They crucified Him! That’s the truth. That is the reality of the Christian life. Maybe not all the time, but often when we follow Christ the road for us is not at all easy. That journey can be a painful and difficult one. Jesus Himself tells us in the gospel:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
He was not being cynical or negative. He was being real. The Christian life involves suffering. It is worth noting that T.S. Eliot came to that conclusion so early after his initial conversion and baptism. He realized almost immediately the truth that we can never separate the crib of Christ from the cross of Christ. Those two mysteries are always taken together.
He continues that poem by describing the descent into the valley, into Bethlehem. The Magi are approaching the manger and the birth of the Child, but off in the distance they recognize three trees standing out on the horizon. It is a clear reference to Calvary, to the death that awaits that Baby who came for the very purpose of redemption and atonement for sin. We can never separate the birth of Christ from the death of Christ.
The conclusion of Eliot’s poem is haunting, as one of the Magi looks back on that journey with troubled introspection:
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.
What the Magi in Eliot’s poem experienced was the death on an entire way of life. All they had previously believed, about gods and religion and their own lives, had come to an end. They had met the God-Man, Jesus Christ, and nothing was the same.
So it is with us. Once we have truly encountered Christ we must inevitably come to see that our old self, our old way of living, our old way of looking at life, must die. We come to the end of our own life, and then see that new life in Christ is just beginning. When we meet God, everything changes. We are never the same again. And that is where St. Matthew ends his own biblical description of the journey of the Magi. He tells us that:
Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Once we have encountered the Living God, we are never the same again. We walk “by another way.” Like those Magi, we do not walk the same way; we do not follow the same paths we used to. We do not see things the same way. We are changed, because we have met Jesus Christ, the Living God.
We come here to this place today, like those Magi, to adore and worship Christ. We bring here to this altar not gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the gift of ourselves. We bring before God all the struggles and difficulties that make up our own journey of faith. We bring those things in our lives that need to die in order for Christ to truly live in us.
Might we make that offering to God this day, and receive from this altar the strength we need in the Eucharist to follow Christ with newness of life. May we leave this encounter with a new perspective, walking in a different way, for we have met Christ and been touched by Him.