Epiphany, 6 January 2012
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
In Matthew’s gospel both Jew and Gentile appear as, of course, does “the Word within a word, unable to speak a word,” Jesus the Savior, in Bethlehem. The Gentiles in the persons of the Magi “saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.” To the extent that Herod does not and the Magi do actively live Isaiah’s words—“your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you”—the suggestion is that the advantages that once lay strictly with the Jews are now shared by the Gentiles. The Magi have come to Christ; Herod has not. Today’s gospel exposes a deadly spiritual sloath that infects Herod and a quickening spiritual vision that enlightens the Magi. As Isaiah says: “Nations shall come to your light, and royalty to the brightness of your dawn.” The Magi represent those nations.
The Anglican bishop, Lancelot Andrewes was King James I’s favorite devine and preached seventeen Christmas sermons at the king’s request between 1605 and 1624. On 25 December 1622 Andrewes preached at Whitehall on Matthew 2:1-2: “Behold there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, where is the king of the Jews that is born? For we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.” After mentioning briefly the word vidimus, the Latin for we have seen, Bishop Andrewes chose to dwell on the word venimus, meaning we are come, and concluded his consideration of the word saying, “All considered, there is more in venimus than shows at first sight.”
Even when the story of the Magi is considered folklore or midrash rather than historical fact, the message in the story concerns God’s plan for the Gentiles’ salvation. Magi or wise men through their natural science discover by following the light of the star what Herod and the religious leaders of Judaism miss, despite their possession of the Scriptures. Consequently, whether we view the passage as historical or not, either way it represents a coming to Christ.
So for Lancelot Andrewes, early in the 17th century, the striking thing was that the Magi came—venimus: We are come . . . in spite of all the hardships that such a journey entails. And he sets out those hardships in detail:
A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the yeare; just, the worst time of the yeare, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The waies deep, the weather sharp, the daies short, the sunn farthest of in solstitio brumali, the very dead of Winter: Venimus, We are come, if that be one; Venimus, We are (now) come, come at this time, that (sure) is another.
All these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable Journey: And for all this, they came . . . . It was but Vidimus, Venimus, with them. They saw and they came.
T. S. Eliot, who admired and wrote about Andrewes, rephrased this section of the bishop’s sermon in his poem “Journey of the Magi” and added to it:
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Moreover, there were:
. . . cities hostile and the towns unfriendly . . .
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Eliot’s poem is an archetype of the journey of any enlightened person’s coming to Christ. So too is that of the Nobel Prize winner and once Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky when he so pertinently writes: “When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us magi” (“December 24, 1971”). Both Eliot and Brodsky are the 20th century voice of the 17th century Andrewes, restating in their own words what he said before them: “there is more in venimus than shews at first sight.”
Surely this second decade of the 21st century is not the best season for such a journey: what one leaves behind is frequently regretted; those one knows seldom make one’s way easy; the path one needs to travel is becoming more aggravatingly hostile; and the voices in one’s ears are endlessly mercenary and mendacious: completely un-Christlike. Well might we ask what Eliot’s Magi asked, “Were we led all that way for / Birth or Death?” Perhaps both because the birth of Christ within us can be a hard and bitter agony. But one of Eliot’s Magi, speaking for the three, says: “I would do it again.”
At the heart of Andrewes’s venimus and of Eliot’s journey and of Brodsky’s Christmas transformation is the paradox of dying into life. For Jesus told us that the seed must die before the plant can live. So there is life lurking in death, and it is for such life that one must endure such death. Those who are sensible realize that there is something more satisfying to live for than more sex, more food, and more money; that is, more than another silken girl or another sherbet or another terrace. Would that that wisdom could make its way to Herod’s look-alikes in our state and federal governments. But even if it did, it would not remove the obstacles that we each face in seeking to be like the Magi who in spite of the obstacles they faced would “do it again.” We need to stand as individuals and as a community with Bishop Andrewes and embrace the truth of what he told King James and his court of the Wise Men if we would be like them: “Venimus is soon said, but a short word; but many a wide and weary step they made before they could come to any Venimus, Lo, here ‘we are come’; come, and at our journey’s end.”
Joseph Brodsky, “December 24th, 1971,” Collected Poems in English (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, ed. Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, Ricardo Quintana, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 35-42.
T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932).
T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950).