As we approach the feast of Epiphany, it is a good time to revisit T.S. Eliot’s magnificent poem “Journey of the Magi” (1935). Written as an old-age reminiscence in the voice of one of the kings, Eliot’s poem traces a richly symbolic spiritual journey that foreshadows Christ’s future Passion, and thus changes the pagan Magi forever. As such, the poem calls us to walk with the wise men on their pilgrimage. But if we do, Eliot warns, it will change us forever: to encounter Christ means both a death and a rebirth that will cost us everything.
With its natural imagery suggesting a spiritual coming-to-life, Eliot’s poem moves symbolically from the barrenness of winter into the verdant fertility of Christ’s arrival. “A cold coming we had of it,” the speaker begins, “Just the worst time of the year.” Traveling in “[t]he very dead of winter,” the Magi frequently doubt the purpose of their pilgrimage: “With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.” But then they enter the region of the Christ Child, and encounter a different world altogether: “at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation.”
Just as he did in his 1927 masterwork The Waste Land, Eliot uses water as a sign of spiritual fruitfulness and life, opposed to the dead cold of winter or the dry barrenness of the desert. Here the Magi find “a running stream and a water-mill,” suggesting both living water and the fertility of grain, which would be ground in the mill. We should see, in the suggestion of grain, Eliot’s allusion to the Eucharist: the birth of Christ gives the Body of Christ to the world.
But, for Eliot, the life-giving joy of Christ’s coming cannot be separated from the foreshadowing of His terrible Passion and Death. The Magi see the silhouette of Calvary dimly promised by the “three trees on the low sky,” and at the tavern they visit they see men “dicing for pieces of silver”—an image that evokes both the casting of lots for Christ’s garment and the blood money earned by Judas’ betrayal. Even the “vine-leaves over the lintel” of the tavern suggest the Roman god Bacchus, who dies and resurrects with the seasons. All of this leads the poetic speaker, one of the Magi, to wonder: “were we led all this way for / Birth or Death?”
Indeed, the pagan Magi in the poem undergo a painful and irrevocable transformation when they encounter the Incarnate God, a permanent dying of what St. Paul called the “old man”—humanity before redemption. “I had seen birth and death,” the speaker says, “But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This death comes about through a moment of seeming understatement in the poem: when they find “the place,” the speaker tells us simply, “it was (you may say) satisfactory.” At first glance, Eliot’s choice of the word “satisfactory” might seem like faint praise for the God-Man. But its Latin roots mean full completion, to “do enough.”
For Eliot here it is only the Incarnation that can ever “do enough,” that can ever fully accomplish what man needs. And nothing else will ever satisfy the Magi again: after this death, when they return to their kingdoms, they can no longer find any rest in their “summer palaces” or “silken girls bringing sherbet.” They find themselves “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” of the pagan world before Christ. For the three kings, after knowing the child Jesus, return home only find themselves strangers in a strange land, and find their own countrymen to be nothing but “an alien people clutching their gods.”
They have had an Epiphany, which comes from the Greek word meaning “a manifestation of the divine,” and it has, in a sense, left them dead to the world. Now the Passion of Christ—that redemptive death which brings about the New Man—has also occurred in them. Now they await the coming of the true Kingdom, dissatisfied with anything less, and the speaker can now conclude only that “I should be glad of another death.” This Epiphany, Eliot’s timeless poem calls us to make those words our own. Let us go with the Magi to meet Jesus, fully aware of the cost of it. Let us recognize that the Incarnation demands a death and offers a birth: the death of our old, barren life, and the birth of our new, fruitful life in Christ.