Conversion: Christmas and Epiphany with TS Eliot

We all know the story of the Three Kings, even if only from the chorus of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” However, Holy Scripture does not call these men kings, but rather magi, “wise men from the east” (Matthew 2:1) Their story reminds us that Christmas is a call to conversion, if we will only hear it.

T.S. Eliot, arguably the finest poet of the 20th century, converted to Christianity as an adult. The poem “The Journey of the Magi” was written shortly after his conversion; an imaginative extrapolation of what the magi experienced on their journey to see the infant Christ, it is also an extended metaphor for the journey to faith in Christ.

In one sense, conversion is a one-time event, but for every Christian it is also a daily, even hourly choice. Every day is a new conversion as we choose that day to follow Christ – and in so doing, choose to follow the way of the cross.

Eliot’s narrator, the unnamed magi who is reflecting years later on the journey, puzzles over this very concept: “I have seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

The magi makes the long journey, accepting hardship, pressing onward despite the voices of self-doubt that sing in his ears, “saying / That this was all folly.” He passes through a landscape redolent with meaning that he does not see, images that foreshadow the Crucifixion. So, too, we have experiences whose depths of meaning we can only understand in retrospect… and we must face the voices of self-doubt that whisper that searching for truth is foolish, quixotic, a waste of time…

And the magi sees the infant Jesus, the Word made flesh. Words fail him; “it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

He cannot stay. He goes home – to a people who have not seen the Truth, “an alien people clutching their gods.” These are his people – but he is no longer one of them. He has seen into the Kingdom, and cannot any longer be at ease in his kingdom of this world.

Like the magi, we cannot stay at the foot of the manger. We kneel in adoration, but then we have to go home, to live and work among a pagan people. We cannot be at ease in the world, nor should we be.

T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”, from Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974). Read the complete poem here at the Poetry Archive.

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