In his very long Christmas poem A Christmas Oratorio, W. H. Auden ends with a section that includes these words:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.
After all the glow and glisten of Christmas, Auden astutely observes that despite our having once again drawn near to the stable in Bethlehem, it is entirely possible that nothing has changed. And it is sadly true. It is indeed possible.
That is why, I think, that after 12 days of Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of the magi, the wise men, the three kings – even in the Gospel doesn’t exactly call them kings or say if there were two, or three or twenty. The Church intends to help us celebrate Christmas as something much more than annual ritual, more civic and social than religious. The Church draws us into the season of Epiphany, the season after Christmas that offers to show us not just what happened, but what it means. For the next few weeks we will see the baby born in a manger now grown up and setting out on his mission to bring about the reign of God on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earth,” says the prayer; and I think he meant it. I think he still means it.
What does it mean that the first major event to which our attention is directed is the arrival of these foreigners from lands far a way and strange to Jesus’s people? What does it mean for us?
As I considered this event this time around, I am struck by the willingness of these magi, these astrologers, to travel so far to see something they can only have hoped might be true. They had read the signs, they had heard the accounts of others, and they set out on long, long journey. T. S. Eliot in his wonderful poem The Journey of the Magi says:
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.
But the came – surly camels, winter weather and all.
And there is a model for each of us. The life of a Christian is a life of journey – journey toward Bethlehem, journey toward Jerusalem, journey toward an empty tomb on Easter morning and an upper room full of the wind and rush and fire of the Holy Spirit of the Living God at Pentecost. Of course I am not talking about literal pilgrimages to those exotic places; I am talking about the inner journey, the journey of self-discovery, of discovering one’s neighbors, and the discovery of God’s own self in those two, if you will, “places.” And while that inner journey includes the exaltation of arriving at the manger and the empty tomb, it also includes the abject desolation of the whipping post and the cross.
This is about your life and mine, our relationship with God through Jesus is a journey. There is, I believe, if we will allow it to be so consolation, support, encouragement and many other good things that all of us need along the way. There are those things. Indeed, I wish more of our culture turned to the church for them and that more of our churches truly offered them. But there is also challenge, a call to repent, that is continually to be willing to change more and more into the persons God made us to be. None of us is there yet. You’ve heard me before sum all this up by saying, “There are many resting places along the spiritual journey, but there are no stopping places.”
The Epiphany, this arrival of weary travelers, is a model for us. I picture them arriving with an entire entourage, tent setter-uppers, porters, cooks and camel drivers. Your entourage for the spiritual journey is here, it is the people here who are on the spiritual path along with you. The first thing Epiphany shows us is that life is a journey.
The second thing we learn is that this child in the manger is a child for the whole world, just as, when he is grown, he will be the savior of the world. That means he is not the property of the Church any more than he was the property of Mary and Joseph. Their job was to make him known to the world; indeed, in the case of Mary, to be the means by which he entered into the world. That is why she is a model for us all. We can picture them as a million artists have already done, standing aside, presenting him, looking with wonder and love as who he is and who he will be is offered to the whole world – even to strange and mysterious astrologers who knew little or nothing of the beliefs, practices and customs of this child’s particular people. Just like Mary and Joseph, our job is to open the door so that the world can come and see.
We are on a journey. We are on a journey together; and insofar as we have to some degree arrived, or at least gone on ahead, our job is to clear the way, make the path open and available to all who are seeking to know the truth.
This child will grow up to be the way, the truth and the life – or as King Alfred of England has said, “To see Thee is the end and the beginning. Thou carriest me and thou goest before: Thou art the journey and the journey’s end.”