Note: This sermon was preceded by a recitation of T.S. Eliot's poem, The Journey of the Magi.
The Journey of the Magi
This week our Gospel reading from Matthew takes us on a journey of faith. T.S. Eliots poem The Journey of the Magi, which Gil White just recited for us, further amplifies the fact that the wise mens physical journey was more deeply a faith journey. I would like to weave together the images from the Gospel reading with Eliots poem, and the poems other sources as a guide for our own faith journeys.
First, a little background on T.S. Eliots poem. He wrote The Journey of the Magi in 1927. That same year, Eliot reached a major milestone in his own faith journey. The intellectual who had vigorously studied Buddhist and Hindu philosophy at Harvard University, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. The Journey of the Magi chronicles Eliots own journey to conversion.
In 1927, T.S. Eliot was also working on a book on the Anglican preacher Lancelot Andrewes and had recently completed an English translation of St. John Perses poem Anabase. It is perhaps fitting then that Eliot freely borrows from both a sermon by Andrewes and the French poem Anabase in crafting The Journey of the Magi.
The first five lines of the poem are lifted, with some poetic alterations, from Lancelot Andrewes Nativity Sermon, preached for King James on Christmas Day 1622. Andrewes used as his text for the sermon Matthew 2:1-2, the first two verses of todays Gospel. In that sermon, Andrewes said the Magi readily undertook a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey to follow the star to the Christ child. Then looking out on the royal court that formed his congregation, Andrewes said that people of his own day were so complacent in their faith that they would not likely travel to the manger if they were as close by as the shepherds, much less as far away as the Magi.
Andrewes went on to speak of his mid-17th century fellows saying that they make great haste to other things, but not to worship God. If Christmas were to involve a long journey begun in December, Andrewes said, Best get us a new Christmas in September; we are not like to come to Christ at this feast. For Andrewes the travel, the journey, the seeking amounted to nothing in themselves. The sole goal for the Magi was to find and worship the Christ with all their soul, body, and worldly goods. Andrewes said our goal should be the same.
This sermon of 1622 apparently had quite an impact on the scholar and poet Eliot who read it more than 300 years later as he was nearing an important point of his own faith journey. Eliot was letting loose of his preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts and coming to see that the goal of his own life could be to seek and worship God.
It is possible to delve deeper into the poem by looking at some of the images Eliot uses. For example, even a cursory read will show that the poet is not merely concerned with the Christmastime trip of the wise men. For the three trees low on the horizon, represent Calvary and Jesus own death on the cross. A white horse, here as in St. Johns Book of Revelation, represents death. With the three trees (the cross), death is sent galloping away.
The vine leaves over the lintel bring to mind the blood of the Passover lamb marked by the Hebrews on the doorposts of their homes in Egypt. Jesus as the true vine now marks the lintels. The men dicing for silver represent the soldiers casting lots for Jesus clothes in the shadow of the cross. Jesus spoke of coming to faith in him as putting new wine in new wineskins and here we see the Magi finding empty wineskins, there is no faith yet.
The word satisfactory, which ends the second stanza, brings to mind today the idea of something barely up to snuff. Just good enough. However, for Eliot, the word more likely rang of the Church of Englands 39 Articles of Religion, which describe Jesus death on the cross as the satisfaction of our sins. Jesus death was satisfactory in that it satisfied any payment we were to make to God for our sins. So far from being just good enough, finding the place, meant satisfaction for sins.
There is more that can be pointed out about the images in this poem, but perhaps we should follow Eliots own advice. In writing about Saint John Perses poem Anabase, from which Eliot borrows for his desert travel imagery, Eliot suggested that rather than closely analyzing each image, we should let them build up in our mind without great scrutiny. Let the whole poem pile image on image and see where it takes you.
I have made copies of the poem, which will be available after the service, so that you can try this activity for yourself. I dont pretend to have all the answers as to what this poem means. In the end, it means whatever it means to all the people who read it. I cannot confine and describe this poem completely. Instead, I read carefully through Eliots starting point, Lancelot Andrewes Nativity Sermon, then read something of Eliots life and our Gospel reading for today. I let all of these images pile atop one another in my mind and then returned to The Journey of the Magi. Here is what I noticed:
In the first of the poems three stanzas, the imagery tells of the perils of the voyage. Undertaking their journey in Just the worst time of the year, the Magi push the sore-footed camels along only to find themselves lying down in melting snow and thinking of their summer palaces as sleep escapes them. There were ample excuses for turning backlack of shelter, hostile cities, and high prices on the road. But rather than turning toward home, the Magi redouble their efforts and press on traveling through the night, napping briefly and moving on. All the while, the voices that rang in their ears proclaimed the folly of the undertaking.
For me, this first section represented undertaking a spiritual journey. This part of the poem shows how a spiritual seeker encounters many obstacles to a true journey of faith. The way is not easy and all along there are inducements to give up the trip all together. Faith will not come easily and reaching conversion happens when we are willing to let those voices that proclaim it all to be folly to recede to the background as we press onward.
The second section of the poem represents to me enlightenment and conversion. The section opens at dawn, the time of enlightenment. Leaving behind the cold, we are brought into a place flowing with living water, which beats back the darkness. At evening, the close of this conversion experience, the Magi find the place and in it, they find satisfaction.
The third section then shows that all that preceded it happened long before. The spiritual journey and the conversion it led to are now long past events. The Magi says that he would do it again. Looking back on the experience from afar, he would not hesitate to do it all again. But the birth the wise men went to see turned into something like death, their own death. This third section visits a person well after conversion. The conversion experience was a death to their old life and they are no longer at ease among the old ways of being. The once familiar ways of home are now for the Magi an alien people clutching their gods and the wise man now gladly looks to another death.
I do not think that the next death the Magi looks to is a physical death any more than his first death was. I think that Eliot is recognizing that his own conversion experience was not a one time event. Other conversions would need to take place. Most of us take more than one conversion before we are ready to worship God with our souls, our bodies, our worldly goods as Lancelot Andrewes said we should. We can find ourselves converted in soul, but still following the old ways with our bodies or with our possessions. A new change will take another sort of conversion. Not a repeating of the born again experience, but another journey to a deeper knowledge of God.
The end of the poem is a new beginning. The traveler back home once again wants to seek more. He should be glad of another death, which is itself new birth. The faith journey continues.
I think one key to where all of this leads us is Eliots enigmatic line from the third stanza, but set down, This set down. Eliot is quotes here again from Lancelot Andrewes Nativity Sermon, which provided the first five lines of the poem. Andrewes said, set down this; that to find where He is, we must learn to ask where He is, which we full little set ourselves to do.
Andrewes went on to say that there is a place to find Christ and it is not just any where. For Andrewes points out that Jesus said some will come and deceive you saying of the Messiah Here he is and There he is. We must do what the wise men did that Herod did not do, we must seek. If we sit still, we like Herod will never find the Christ.
A spiritual journey must begin with a seeking heart. It is only when we begin to seek that we can find. Our Gospel reading today said that the wise men asked Herod, Where is the child for we observed his star and have come to pay him homage. They were seekers with a clear purpose. To take your own spiritual journey to another level, seek God in the places where he is found, through scripture, prayer, and worship.
Where is Christ found in your life? What have you observed? Where might God be leading you now? Are you still seeking satisfaction? The knowledge that God does exist; God does love you; God did send his Son to reconcile you to him. Have you been through satisfaction only to land in complacency? Have you lost the sense that our culture is actually alienated from the true God and worshipping gods like wealth, status, and power? Then God might be calling you to seek him once again, leading you to another death, which is more new birth.
For wherever you are on your own spiritual journey, you have not fully arrived. Perfection is the goal. Jesus said so, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). However, perfection is a goal never fully achieved. The journey continues. God is calling you forward, offering new revelations of Gods own self. Take your own spiritual journey to another level. Seek God in scripture, prayer, and most importantly through worship. The journey is a long, the ways deep and the weather hard, but in the end you will find it was (you may say) satisfactory.
 The full text of this sermon is found online at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/pc/lact/andrewes/v1/sermon15.html
 From the preface to his translation of the poem, quoted in part in Section V of an article found online at http://www.partisanreview.org/archive/2000/1/donoghue.html
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