Feast of the Epiphany: The worst time of year for such a journey

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.

— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]

 

When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:

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. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:

‘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.’

The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

… it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

In Andrewes 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

 

[i] Andrewes’ complete sermon may be found here.

[ii] “Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1974), 99

Tending the lamps of holy imagination

Dreaming in Venice

Dreaming in Venice

We are in the fifth day of the Venice Colloquium, a small gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.” We will finish our work on Sunday in time to attend the mass for All Saints Day in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s cathedral.

The conversations and presentations have been extremely rich, and I will be reporting on them in future posts, once I have begun to absorb and process what has happened here. In the meantime, while I have a rare free moment to attend to my blog, let me try to put into one simple statement the sense of need, perhaps even crisis, which has brought us together:

The practice of holy imagination is like a sanctuary lamp in the life of the Church. If not duly attended to, it is in danger of going out.

(In the very moment of writing that statement, the church bells of Venice began to ring all over the island where we are staying. I’ll take that as a “yes.”)

What would the Church be like if that lamp were to be extinguished? I had a vision of that dismal outcome yesterday, in a video by artist Theaster Gates at Biennale, the international art exposition being held in Venice.

Part of an installation called “Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyrs,” the video filled the entire wall of a dark room. Shot inside the dim space of a ruined church, it revealed few details of the interior. The two men who moved about inside were faceless shadows. It suggested to me a lower level of Dante’s Inferno, an impression reinforced by the repetitive violence of their actions.

Lying on the floor amid the rubble of a fallen ceiling, there were two heavy doors. They had become useless, meaningless, no longer attached to any place of entry or exit. The two men would circle the doors once or twice, raise one or the other to an upright position, and let it fall with a great echoing crash. They did this over and over, as if condemned to enact this enigmatic distillation of their wounded condition for all eternity. A wailing offstage blues singer was the only other sound, a cry from the depths of darkness.

The space between the image and the opposite wall was not wide, so that the viewer could not keep much distance from what was being projected. It was like sitting in the front row of an Imax theater. There was no escaping the image. I was immersed in it, and that added to its claustrophobic feel.

But after about ten minutes of this, the camera slowly panned away from the men and the doors, toward the end of the church where the altar had been. The apse wall was broken down, open to the sky. Being able finally to see light breaking into all that darkness seemed like the rolling away of Christ’s tombstone. And just below the roofline, one piece of unbroken wall remained, painted with a fresco of the Last Supper. The holy image was ancient and faded, like a memory not yet entirely lost.

Whatever the artist’s specific intentions, I came away from that screening room with an indelible image of a desolate church robbed of its light. Such a prospect is why we tend our lamps so religiously. It is why we have come to Venice.

But that ruined church is no place to leave you, dear reader. Instead, let me offer another image of the Church, in which “she” is depicted an old woman in her declining years. It is by Mark Harris, a member of our Colloquium, and he graciously permitted me to publish it here. I promise you, it ends well.

She is an Old Woman

She is an old woman,
Not well respected over the years.
Shuffling off to the bathroom
She looks in the mirror
And does not see the face of Christ.

Whatever happened to my body,
She wonders, whose parts all work
Together for good?

She has been ravaged
By some who claimed to be lovers,
And by others who had no such pretensions,
Only opportunistic rapine desire.

For the moment before the first service
She is quiet. She gathers the shambles
Of her dignity and rambles
Off to prayer and Thanksgiving.

“Who will come today, who will come.?
Will they remember me in my glory,
When I was all light and lovely?
Will they come in pity, shame and wonder
That I am still here?”

The word goes around that it was all a story,
That she was never beautiful and never lithe.
She hears them whispering. She feels
Their eyes as they wait to see her die.
They will scurry over her remains
Looking for something to take away:
A remembrance of glory past,
If glory was there at all.

She laughs softly,
And in a resurrection moment
Almost worthy of the second coming,
She is consumed in fire.

Renewed and beautiful,
She lifts the veil that hides her face.
“Behold,” she says,
“I make all things new.”