It’s the beginning of a new year again, and with Epiphany upon us, I often drift back to something that I first read more than 20 years ago now, “The Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot. It’s one of those things that I had to read for school, but then came to love.
T. S. Eliot was a practicing Anglo-Catholic, and his faith always had a huge part to play in his writing.
The focus, as the title of the poem suggests, is on the trip itself to see the Christ. This physical journey of the magi is a representation for a spiritual journey of faith. For us today, as people who continue to practice Christianity in a world that has become mostly secular, the portrayal of alienation felt by these outsiders that Eliot expresses can ring especially true—these are men who are not Jewish or Christian, but who are on their way to see Jesus, whose birth would be a huge threat to the pagan religions that they belong to. This was clearly the beginning of something new, but at the possible expense of the things that had gone before—at the expense of the familiar things. The narrator of the poem says,
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.
There are some of us in the Church that struggle like this a great deal these days. The world has changed so much, and so quickly. We may worry that the good things are all gone. Our constant need to “pivot” (a big buzz word of the pandemic) is exhausting, and I can feel a connection with these magi who feel like they are seeing their very identity disintegrating.
Perhaps there is worth in noting that Christ’s birth was not a good thing for all people, even those like the magi who saw this as so important that they travelled to be witnesses to it. Important, but also a bit worrying.
When Archbishop Linda Nicholls was visiting last fall, she talked about some of the good things that have happened since the pandemic began. For example, people have found themselves reconnecting with traditional worship like the daily offices, which are one of our real strengths as Anglicans. Let’s take the time to rediscover who we are, and remember the things that make us unique and beautiful.
I don’t think that the death of the Anglican Church is at all on its way, but this is a good time to understand who we are and who we want to be. We need to address the many problems from our past, and at the same time we can embrace the good things and build on them. We can take this time, this epiphany season, to experience insight—to see more clearly the way that is before us as the Church. The way to avoid the bitter agony and death is to allow God to direct us in the way that he wants us to go, and allow the light of the world to shine through us.