Today’s feast has several fine images which could provide the starting point for a good meditation: the guiding star, the three gifts, the camels, the wise men themselves or the mighty, yet fearful King Herod.
Instead I would like to take the lines of our reading from Paul’s letter to Titus 3:4-5
‘When the kindness and love of our Saviour appeared, he saved us. It was not because of any good works we ourselves had done but because of his own mercy that he saved us through the washing by which the Holy Spirit gives us new birth and life.’
The poem has, I think, become something of a cliché, and has, perhaps, lost something of its impact through familiarity: ‘a cold coming we had of it’, we could now say even about many winter journeys (Though not this year, maybe. Wet, would be more appropriate) Nevertheless, it remains a poem worth rereading and questioning. It is a poem in which Eliot has been able to embody a new dimension to the familiar story of the three kings – it isn’t usual to think of what the journey, or its aftermath, might have been for them. We glimpse them in the Scriptures only in the short moment of their arrival, supported by art which sees them arriving with comfortable retinue. Eliot’s poem is one in which, in its juxtaposition of realism (the camel men cursing and grumbling) and symbolism (the three trees on the low sky, the hands dicing for silver) Eliot has also been able to encapsulate, or at least point to, journeys of Christian conversion, of meeting the incarnate Christ, which always means leaving the familiar for the unknown, in which, in the difficulties we meet, as of hostility and unfriendliness, we long for the comfort of what has been left behind – of whatever, for us, are ‘the summer palaces and the silken girls bringing sherbet,’ and, like the magi, surely hear the voices singing in our ears that this – the Christian undertaking, the search for Christ (or even more widely, Dominican life or whatever the ideal we embark upon) – is all folly.
'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.'
'O dark, dark, dark
Amidst the blaze of noon
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse
Without the hope of day!'
This is what John Milton – who himself became blind - has Samson (of Samson and Delilah) say in his poem about this blind but heroic figure in the Bible. And perhaps one of the difficulties of talking about the overwhelming phenomenon of light, all that it brings, and all that it does, (of appreciating Christ as the light of the world, whose symbol is the white candle on our Advent wreathes)