Wisdom the Hard Way
Although officially the story of the Three Wise Men is usually considered as part of the season of Epiphany, the time of revelation and manifestation of the divine, we are quite used by now to entertaining these exotic visitors during the Christmas season itself. An essential part of every nativity play and crib scene, their presence adds a fragrant, spicy symbolism to the layers of meaning embedded within the story of the Incarnation. Their brightly-gilded costumes lift the humble manger scene to the level of a royal court.
Some of you will have read (or heard me read) Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi, and may remember that those wise men had a tough journey, having left their summer palaces to negotiate hard roads, unfriendly hospitality and ‘very high prices’. Nearly all of us will be celebrating Christmas this year with our own hard roads to walk. Some of us will be on our own. Some of us will be grieving for loved ones lost. Some of us will be anxious about our health or about family members or friends. Some of us may be anxious about what the future will bring. Our goals, our plans, our hopes for the future have all had to shift. All of us will be tired.
At every point along the uncertain road, there is a voice singing in the narrator’s ear, “This is folly.” Far better surely to turn back and seek the comforts of home, the old ways, the old ‘normal’ Once arrived at their destination, the Magi found it merely ‘satisfactory’. The word, of course, picks up the Book of Common Prayer’s reference to the cross of Christ, “who made there … a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” The Wise Men of Eliot’s poem are on a journey to the foot of the cross, where the ‘old ways’ are overturned by God’s redeeming love.
Eliot wrote this poem in 1927, shortly after his conversion to Anglican Christianity. The poem is packed with Christian symbol and Anglican liturgy, but it is not what you would call enthusiastic. And yet, with its understatement, its gritty, determined resolution to recall and face the difficulty of belief, its discomfort and dislocation, it possesses an extraordinary beauty and a deeper comforting.
The death of the old ways – old ways of thinking, of the power of reason, indeed the death of power itself – is accepted. The wise man, possessor of knowledge, reader of the stars, diviner of truths, finds his former powers slipping away from him. He does not want them back. There is a deeper wisdom which begins with the acceptance that our power systems, our belief systems, our rationalities, even our religion, no longer fit us, are no longer satisfactory, can no longer help us. For they do not keep death at bay as we hoped they would. This acceptance is not in itself comfortable – if we turn to Christ looking for the recovery of our summer palaces we will be disappointed. We are in a very real sense asked to accept the darkness of the unknown, the adventure of the new; in other words, to accept change: the shedding of our old skins, the death of our old selves, the acceptance of our real death to come. This acceptance is a sure sign of spiritual growth.
In Christian understanding, wisdom and suffering go hand in hand. As we sorrow for our losses and discomforts this Christmas, let us not push away our suffering, but accept that this is where true wisdom begins and is where our journey to pay homage to the Christ-child points.