Monday, January 06, 2014

The Journey of the Magi

'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, sore-footed, 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 arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may 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.

--T.S. Eliot


The Elizabethan and Jacobean court celebrated the twelve days of Christmas with banquets every day and entertainments every night. Not having quite the same resources at our disposal, Cosimo and I nevertheless wanted to find a meaningful way to celebrate Epiphany and wind down the Christmas season. So last night we lit the advent wreath for the last time and exchanged cards and a small gift apiece; today, we take down the tree and holiday decorations.

But since Epiphany, "the revelation to the nations," is fundamentally about seeing beyond the circle of one's family, friends and immediate community, I wanted to do something in that spirit as well. Since virtually all of my charitable giving is domestic--and most of it is intensely local, focused on my city, county, and state--for Epiphany, I'm starting a tradition of giving to a charity that focuses on the developing world (on the recommendation of Give Well, I went with Give Directly, which puts money in the hands of the extremely poor in Kenya and Uganda).

Here's hoping your day and your year are full of revelations large and small.


JaneB said...

Happy Twelth Night!

My family had a twelth night tradition - we had a nativity which was put up before Christmas, but the figures of the kings were put in a different room of the house. As children, my sister an I were always excited to find that the baby Jesus had appeared in the manger on Christmas morning, and would check to see where the kings were each day during the twelve days as they travelled around the house. They arrived at the nativity scene on the last day, and brought small presents for everyone in the family, which we opened before taking down and packing up all the decorations. So much of the public emphasis is on preparing for Christmas, and I think it's really nice to keep meaning in the twelve days, which we can mostly spend with family and friends, quietly, then to actually end with Epiphany and reaching out into the world again - it's something missing from 'modern Christmas' and it's nice to see other people do something with it too.

Flavia said...


Oh, love that!

And yes, agreed. I think it alleviates a lot of the post-Christmas letdown to have some small, quiet, deliberative celebrations up through Epiphany.

Susan said...

For some years my former church had a big 12th night vent - singing, storytelling, etc, with a piƱata and feast after. My tradition is to take down Christmas on Epiphany.

I like your idea of reaching out with giving. I've always had a range of giving, local and global, but I think the idea of attaching some global giving to epiphany.

Contingent Cassandra said...

For a few years (when I had a big living room at my disposal), I had an Epiphany party. Among other things, the 12 days approach works well with the academic calendar (since grading tends to continue until very close to Christmas; in the last few years, I've been trying to get grades in at least a day before our church's Longest Night service -- Dec. 21 acknowledgment of the darkness that persists despite the season -- at which I'm often the reader). It works less well, however, for academics who have school-age children, so that idea dwindled before it truly became a tradition (and not only because I lost the house to development). But my friends' kids are getting rapidly older, so maybe I'll try it again someday, if I can afford a slightly larger home (though actually that sort of dessert/coffee party is one of the few kinds that might work in my current studio apartment, where one can have dinner or conversational seating, but not both at once).

I love the journeying Magi, JaneB, and also the idea of Epiphany as an occasion for international giving. The more conservative of our two pastors preached last Sunday, and I think it's the closest I've heard her come to acknowledging the possibility of universal salvation (she is, by the way, an excellent pastor, but we could probably manage to disagree on a few subjects -- not a bad thing, actually; one of the things I like about the congregation to which I belong is that it is not theologically or politically homogeneous).