Sunday, January 06, 2013


Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, 6th January 2013


‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, …’

So begins T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, 'The Journey of the Magi'.  In it Eliot gives voice to one of them as he recalls and reflects on their experience.  He tells of the terrible difficulties they experienced on their journey, the problems they faced in finding what they were seeking and, when they arrived, their confusion at what they encountered.

S. Matthew tells us that they presented three gifts to the child: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and tradition has said there were, therefore, three Magi who have been named as Melchior, Kaspar and Belthasar.  They came from ‘the East’: in ancient times this was held to be Babylon.  Whatever their number or their origin of these fantastic figures their story has become celebrated throughout the world.  Indeed, the great Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was saved from destruction by Persian invaders in 614 because when they were about to destroy the church their commander discovered a depiction of the Three Magi attired as his fellow countrymen and commanded that the building be spared. 

And then, those gifts that were bought to the feet of the Holy Babe: they’ve become famed not just because of their spiritual meaning – gold for a king, incense for a deity and myrrh, that bitter perfume to anoint the dead Christ – but because the church has seen them as symbolising the way we are to present our gifts to Christ.  As they offered gifts most rare, we sing, so may we with holy joy, … all our costliest treasures bring, Christ, to thee our heavenly king.  What are the gifts that God has given to you?  What talents, abilities, aptitudes do you possess?  These are the gifts, your costliest treasurers, that God has given you and which, like those Wise Men, you are to bring to Christ. 

But there’s another aspect to this event I want to focus our attention on this morning, and that’s the journey of those Magi and what it might say to us.

Eliot’s poem is focused on the journey.  He recounts the Magi’s travels as they left their summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet and experienced, on their travels, the cities hostile and towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices.  At some point they almost despaired With the voices singing in (their) ears, saying That this was all folly.

The poem is, in a sense, the story of Eliot’s – and everyman’s – journey of faith.  He was a devout Anglo-Catholic whose faith was fundamental to his life.  Many of his poems deal with this matter of seeking to respond to God’s call and the way in which we respond.  In one of his most celebrated, ‘Little Gidding’, he says this:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

Those words might have been written for the ending of the journey of the Magi, for the conclusion of their travels was in confusion: were we led all that way for Birth of for Death?  So often the journey of life does not take us to what we expected to find but, rather, presents us with more questions that we need to contemplate if we are to deepen our understanding.  And here Eliot also points out that the goal of their seeking wasn't just an innocent baby but a man whose ultimate death – and resurrection – has drawn millions.

Faith is a response to the hints and guesses that there is more to life than we see.  It is a response that requires of us movement.  To leave the comfort of our ‘summer palaces’ for an unknown destination.  To follow a star that draws us, we know not where.  In his book, ‘Markings’, Dag Hammarskjold wrote:

I am being driven forward
Into an unknown land.
The pass grows steeper,
The air colder and sharper.
A wind from my unknown goal
Stirs the strings
Of expectation.

Still the question:
Shall I ever get there?
There where life resounds,
A clear pure note
In the silence.

We are not just driven simply by our need for God, but beneath that need because His desire is drawing us deeper into union with all things.  And the important thing is the journey, for when we arrive we will have been changed by our abandonment to God’s movement in us.   

We know what we need in life – food and clothing, a roof over our head and loved ones to care for and who care for us.  But if we are not changed through all that, if we don’t grow in ‘wisdom’ as well as stature, what is the point of it all?  We have a physical and an emotional life.  But we have a spiritual life as well and the person who neglects to care for any part of their life will be stunted.  The tragedy, of course, is that they may not realise this.  No doubt those Magi could have lived on the slopes enjoying the sherbet brought them.  But they responded to that call and nothing was the same for them. 

We returned to our palaces, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods. 

Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

We have also responded to God.  We have been attracted by a ‘star’ which sometimes shines brightly, sometimes is dull.  And sometimes it disappears and we look to others for guidance.  The Magi went to Herod, that focus of evil, and were ‘helped’ on their way yet were wise enough not to be drawn by him.  Our journey of faith is the same. 

As we stand at the beginning of a new year (of grace) we might pause for a moment and reflect on how we have been led in the past.  How have we grown in our faith?  What has changed for us?  How have we sought to respond to our ‘star’ – to God who constantly invites us to seek Him?  Of course, there will be times when we need to rest but the journey calls us on.  So we need to look to the coming year and re-dedicate ourselves to responding to God who desires us with a love beyond words. 

When those Magi arrived at Bethlehem they realised the truth of those words:
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled …

The Epiphany – which means shining forth – of the Lord is what has called to wise men (and women) for two millennia and more.  Indeed, humanity has sought God throughout time and those who have consciously given themselves to this search have found their lives changed in ways beyond their imaginings.  We may think we know what we seek, what we hope and long for.  But as we reach out to God, so God will change us.  Have that desire deep in your hearts this coming year.  Give yourselves again to the adventure of faith, that journey of a lifetime.  Let your desire express itself in your prayer.

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.

So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.
For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.

So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.


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