A Cold Coming We Had of It

When I was a child, my favorite holiday ritual was to help my mother decorate our house for Christmas. We’d haul up boxes of decorations from the basement, unwrap the felt and clothespin ornaments we’d made in years past, untangle the tree lights, and set to the work of decking our halls.

When all the other boxes were emptied and the house made festive, my mother would hand me a final cardboard box that held our nativity set, a faux-antique plaster set she’d bought at Woolworth’s in 1963. This job was mine and mine alone, an early sign that my mother knew me well.

I would spend the better part of the evening creating an elaborate drama on top of the buffet in the dining room. The shepherds were camped out on one end, minding their plastic sheep (the originals had been broken even before I came along) with no idea that in a matter of weeks their lives would be upended. Mary and Joseph and their donkey began their journey at the other end, making daily progress toward the moss-covered shack at the center of the tableau. Baby Jesus had to wait out most of December in a drawer, making his dramatic appearance just before we went to bed on Christmas Eve.

But my favorite part of the whole set was the wise men. Being very concerned with historical accuracy, I settled the three kings and their camel on a bookshelf on the eastern corner of the room where they had to bide their time until word came for them to head toward the action on the buffet. Then, day-by-day, I would move them slowly across the vast expanse of the living room, carrying them over the couch mountains, through the coffee table valley, across the open desert of the gold shag carpet until, on January 6th, they arrived at the cradle with their arms full of strange gifts, their solemn faces never giving over to the strain of the journey they’d just completed.

That journey was far more interesting to me than the travels of dear pregnant Mary and her weary husband. These were great men who had been sent out by their crazed king for a vague purpose, asked to travel for weeks, maybe even months, to spy on a baby.

So imagine my joy when, as an adult, I happened to hear a Christmas radio broadcast of my favorite musician, Bruce Cockburn, along with Roseanne Cash and Lou Reed, performing a strange, haunting poem about these same haggard kings. The poem, it turns out, was “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), published in 1930 as part of his Ariel Poems. It began:

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 poem, written shortly after Eliot’s 1927 conversion to Christianity, is about far more than the Magi themselves. Literary types read it as the story of Eliot’s conversion, the often-brutal journey into faith. The first five lines are lifted from a 1622 “Nativity Sermon” given by Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the original King James Version of the Bible.* Andrewes’s sermons and writings were thought to be instrumental in Eliot’s coming to faith, suggesting that the poet himself points to the connections between this haunting poem and his struggles to hold on to his newfound belief.

Like so much in the Christmas narrative, the arrival of the wise men has been romanticized in our telling of the story. Our versions tend to focus on their arrival at the manger, their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, their brave decision to rebel against Herod (Matthew 2:1-12). We see them as a sign that even earthly rulers are humbled before the throne of the newborn king.

But Eliot suggests a far different reading of the Magi. There is little triumph, little nobility in his narrative. Instead, it is grim, earthy, crude. There is doubt. There is complaining. There is despair.

…[W]ere 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.

When Eliot wrote this poem, not only was he a fairly new Christian, he was also in the throes of a difficult, disintegrating marriage. Coming to the faith at mid-life, Eliot’s conversion was not a simple matter of belief out of unbelief, but of a long, slow, clearly painful process of letting go of one life and clinging desperately to another. Like the Magi, the new convert travels out of one country into a sometimes dark, dank, unfamiliar place where the natives are not always kind, the sleep often restless, the mission undefined. Is it a birth or a death? “I had seen birth and death,” he writes, “But had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

My childhood dramatic inclinations not withstanding, there is, for me, something deeply compelling about the bitterness of Eliot’s telling of the story. Through Eliot’s words, we are invited into a different telling of the Christmas story, one in which the reframing of the world, the mixing of kingdoms ushered in by the Incarnation, brings as much pain and struggle as it brings joy and peace. This is not a simple story of God entering the world and all being well. We know there is great tragedy to come in this story, that it won’t always make sense. We know that our stories, too, are laced with sorrow and loss and the constant need to choose faith and hope over despair and confusion. As we wander through mountains and deserts and what can often be vast wastelands of doubt, we face that “hard and bitter agony” of leaving behind our old kingdoms and making our way into new ones. And yet, in the midst of this tension, we, like the Magi, find ourselves glad of another death as we slowly let go of the darkness and cling to the light.

By Carla Barnhill

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #103 in 2012]

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