TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi is perhaps the first (or second) poem that comes to mind for Epiphany. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful poem. The opening line, though, was first written in a homily by the Anglican theologian Lancelot Andrewes, who preached, “A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey in.”
The theft reveals Eliot’s burgeoning anglo-catholic faith, and the poem itself is a meditation not on the historical events of Epiphany but on the journey, the discovery, and the reflection on the meaning of what the magi found. In writing the way he did, Eliot is not merely rehearsing history but is re-living the events as a mystagogical experience. This is precisely how the Church participates in these holy mysteries as she processes through the liturgical calendar, not so much as a re-enactment or remembrance of a long ago event, but as a living story, our story.
Epiphany is in the journey. It is for us. We follow the magi, seek the star, and with great sacrifice knock on the door of the house of the Christ child. In him, birth and death are inextricably linked. He is born to die, and his death brings about re-birth. Perhaps the paradox made Eliot’s head hurt, because he says of the poem, “I had been thinking about it in church and when I got home I opened a half-bottle of Booth’s gin, poured myself a drink and began to write. By lunchtime the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished.”
Here’s Eliot reading the poem
And here’s Alec Guinness
Guinness wears it a bit better and follows the rhythm of the words more gently. His gift for oratory makes Eliot’s genius shine.