My Favorite Christmas Poem

The Journey of the Magi

by T.S. Elliot

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


“…were we led all that way for a Birth or Death?”  What a question!  Here we come to the manger expecting to see new life and indeed we do, but also a death.  A death to our sensibilities of power and prestige, a death to the easy and shiny conventions of popular culture.  Come to the stable and DIE good people!  It is as if the Christ Child mocks us in our wayward expectations, he brings us low to the excrement and, amidst the lowing cattle, a new life is found! And so we say, “I should be glad of another death.”  As we now realize a new reality in the midst of the present one, we return, “…to these places, these Kingdoms.”  Unified in death and new life, but amidst an alien people clutching their gods.  And clutch them they must, for what will remain if they don’t?  The emptiness of the universe? The uncertain twists and turns of daily struggle with now destination ahead?  Those gods they hold close, they’re familiar friends, though they come to steal and kill while replacing nothing.

Praise Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who made is dwelling among us to save us from ourselves and the powers of darkness.  We are rescued and redeemed, in need of no other god, for in the manger laid what we really need to hold on to.