January 7, 2017
“They departed for their country by another way.” (Mt 2:12)
These wise men, they set out on a fool’s errand, following a star which probably no-one else could tell from any other in the night sky. At their journey’s end they rejoiced greatly to find a child with a woman in a house. They saw, they worshiped, they left gifts. And then they went home, by another way.
Even had they not intuited Herod’s malice, what could they have said to him upon their return from Bethlehem? “We saw a child, much like any other, and a woman, much like any other, in a house, much like any other.” Would Herod himself, had he bestirred himself to Bethlehem, have found anything to justify further action? It seems as if, for Matthew at least, who mentions no stable or manger or unusual circumstances, the wise men were themselves the most notable elements of this scene.
Christ is born in Bethlehem – and things went on as usual. So it is for us – January comes, the leftovers are finished, the decorations are put away, and we resign ourselves to a return to ordinary life, work, relationships, problems, irritations and the dreary scene outside the window with three months of winter still ahead of us. Ordinariness can be a bit depressing, with its monotony and cyclic repetition that seems to lead only down the drain. The cold, the bare trees, the sodden leaves, the dusty shadows of summer flowers now blackened and brittle – all of this speaks of death. Likewise resuming work after the surge of adrenaline and hope before Christmas made it seem as if the consummation of all things was upon us, feels like the mother of all anti-climaxes. At least, this is how it goes for me.
I have spent a week walking with wise men – three of them – as they journey to Bethlehem. The first is Qoheleth, preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes, philosopher king and uncompromising seeker of meaning. He is one of my heroes, for his courage and incisiveness in laying bare the absurdities of human life in the world. No armchair philosopher this, he exerted himself not only in reading and thinking but in building and sowing and trying on every kind of undertaking for size. He just kept on seeking and asking, “What is the meaning of this toil that does not satisfy, of this wisdom that does not save, of this life that leads inexorably toward death?” When he spoke of the vanity of all things, he spoke the truth, but not the whole truth. The gaping hole in Qoheleth’s heart is in the shape of the Incarnate and Risen Son of God. Beneath the monotony of material creation, the rhythms of toil and enjoyment, birth and death, beats the human heart of God, who chose to walk the earth, to toil and enjoy the fruit of labor, to be born and to die. And into that void where Qoheleth’s meditation on death leaves us staring, helpless, steps the Crucified, whom death could not hold captive. “There has to be more than this!” says Qoheleth. “Yes,” says Christ, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt 11:28)
The second of my magi is T.S. Eliot, the twentieth-century poet whose own belabored search led him through city streets and ocean depths and waterless wastelands. He took the best of the cultural and religious traditions of the world by the throat, backed them against a wall, and attempted to extort from them living water. Eliot wrote of the Journey of the Magi – of discomfort and frustration and doubt, and at length, “Finding the place; it was (you may say) / satisfactory.” But he asks, “were we led all that way for / Birth or Death?” The magi witnessed a birth, but experienced it as a death, because it seemed to leave them stranded between what was and what is to come. They could not find their way home. They were strangers and aliens in the world. Eliot does not give easy answers; the faith in Christ he found was not journey’s end, but a new phase of searching and yearning.
The third wise man in my life is Soren Kierkegaard, nineteenth-century Danish philosopher whose great learning paled into insignificance beside what was wrought in him by the pedagogy of pain. His hero was Abraham, and costly faith his fascination. He would not let himself be drawn aside from facing the full anguish of Abraham’s test, and the full miracle of his hope beyond all hope that he would receive Isaac back. Abraham was his model of a knight of faith, who could return from facing death and eternity to alight like a dancer with perfect poise and take delight once more in the material pleasures of the world. Kierkegaard knew all too well that he was more like the knight of resignation, who is too caught up in the loss of all things to receive them back as a gift. I wonder if this was Eliot’s problem too, and Qoheleth’s? Like the dancer who, after leaping, lands with a wobble, Kierkegaard walked awkwardly among mere mortals, a stranger in a strange land. But he could at least see that there was another way home – another way to be in the world after witnessing a Birth.
We need to find a way back – another way back to life in the ordinary day to day. Cistercians are supposed to be experts in this, the “ordinary, obscure and laborious” way of life we share with most people in the world, but choose deliberately. I am not. I have to keep choosing to embrace the ordinary, or else be condemned to endless, restless distraction and search for entertainment. Those foolish wise men were satisfied with ordinariness, after all their searching. And I dare say that they were more like the knight of faith than Eliot would have it. They rejoiced greatly at seeing the child, because they saw God, and now, because they found another way home, everything ordinary shows them God.
Going home by another way means being changed by Christ’s birth and reentering ordinary life, not as a stranger, but as a person made more human by God’s humanity.