The winter holidays are on their way. Since leaving my hometown in Texas thirty years ago, I have spent almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas since driving or flying hundreds of miles to share the holidays with family and friends. Over the river and through the woods I go, stitching interstate mile to interstate mile, or flying with only what I can carry in a suitcase, my toiletries regulation sized. As I think about the holidays and travel in the midst of the pandemic this year, I’m reminded of another travel story, the story of the journey of the wise men as told by T.S. Eliot in his poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” The poem is a reflection and a confession told in first-person from the point of view of one of the magi. Maybe sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, and maybe sometimes it’s not.
The poem is told in three stanzas and provides a chronology of the journey that begins when the magi, in their home kingdoms, see a “star at its rising” that they divine as a sign of the “newborn King of the Judeans.” The story appears in only one of the gospels, Matthew 2:1-15, and I’m quoting the New Testament translated from the original Greek by David Bentley Hart.
I first encountered the Biblical story of the wise men’s journey as a child attending Reavilon Baptist Church in Greenville, Texas, and it seemed complete in its telling. In the annual church dramatization of the birth of Jesus, the wise men (aka magi) were kings dressed in luxurious costumes made of purple velvet, white satin, and carmine silk. Played by teenage boys, the wise men marched up the center aisle of the church near the closing of the drama while the choir sang the dirge, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and the boys paused like brides with each step.
I didn’t even know the word magi as a child. Eliot chooses it, though Hart decides on “Magians” in his translation, with a foot note explaining the Greek word (μάγοι) refers to Persian men of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, largely associated in the Hellenistic mind with oneiromancy and astrology, or “sorcerers;” and the magi were never strictly referred to as “wise” or “learned men.” They were, rather, experts at prophesying based on divination of nature and dreams.
If the magi were Persians, their home kingdoms were at great distance from Bethlehem, roughly 750 miles, though some scholars believe the magi came from Oman, an equally distant location. Traveling on camels, with all the attendant baggage, to Bethlehem would have taken weeks and involved foul weather and crossing mountains. Eliot details the difficulties of the journey in the first stanza of his poem, taking place as it did in “the very dead of winter,” with “the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,” and:
…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…
The speaker of the poem confesses that he regrets and misses lounging in “the summer palaces” of his home kingdom, and “the silken girls bringing sherbet.” Most agonizing is the magi’s doubt. He is not convinced the journey’s terrible hardships are worth it; “[v]oices singing” in his ears tell him that it is “all folly.”
Traveling with doubt, the poem’s second stanza delivers the magi and his party “down into a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation.” They have reached the outskirts of Bethlehem, and dramatic irony is introduced into the poem. The sights the magi reports can be deciphered as symbolic by the reader, but not by the magi himself, even though he is a sorcerer priest. The magi sees “three trees on the low sky,” foreshadowing the crucifixion that awaits the as-yet-unseen baby Jesus. At the inn, the magi sees “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” and “feet kicking the empty wine-skins,” signifying Judas’ future betrayal and the parable of new wine and old skins found in Matthew 9: 14-17.
There are other ciphers in the poem, but the magi fails to divine them. He and his party quest on about the city for an audience with the newborn King. In the annual church dramatization of events, the wise men find baby Jesus in a manger, and Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds in a barn-like stable with docile animals and devoted angels keeping company, but that’s just a narrative convenience. The journey to find the “rising star” would have taken the magi several weeks, possibly months. By that time, the family of three had moved into a house elsewhere in Bethlehem, which is where the plot thickens.
By the time the magi and his party find the newborn King, the young family is in imminent peril. A sense of urgency arises when the magi reports they are “not a moment too soon / Finding the place.” The magi present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and depart to return to their home kingdoms by an alternate route. They have been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who is planning to kill the infant Jesus. With the beneficent gifts from the magi, the young family can afford to escape to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s murderous plot.
The third and final stanza of the poem opens with the magi announcing “[a]ll this was a long time ago, I remember.” In the years since he returned to his home kingdom, the magi has pondered the journey’s meaning and is deeply troubled. He admits he “would do it again,” though the “Birth” he witnessed signaled the “Death” of “the old dispensation” and has left him “no longer at ease” in his life. His despair is so great that he “should be glad of another death,” his own, so that his existence will pass into the stream of history, and the rest of the story can unfold.
Eliot’s poem about the journey of the magi awakens a sense of urgency and temporality in me that was missing from the story before. The world changed before the magi’s eyes, and yet he can’t make sense of it. He has knowledge of the change and no regrets, even if it means the existing status quo is no longer viable. The doubt expressed in the first stanza of the poem has been replaced in the end by the magi’s faith: faith that the world can change, has changed, and the status quo has been overthrown. The destination is a new world where old beliefs go to die. It’s the story of a difficult journey, and grace and redemption that’s fitting for our present moment.