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.
So ends T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi,” which tells the story of the Epiphany from the perspective of the three wise men. We tend to think of Epiphany as the happy culmination of the Christmas season, with its traditionally enthusiastic singing of “We Three Kings,” but this day also represents a shocking sort of disruption. Eliot was right, I think, to describe it as an experience of death: the death of certainty, the death of an old and familiar way of being. But it is also, of course, an experience of birth: new life, new hope, and a new identity for the Gentiles who see the glory of the messiah of Israel.
Epiphany became a time of shock and disruption in a very direct way for me in 2004, when my father died very unexpectedly of a heart attack. In the wake of that event, I came to recognize in new ways how deeply death and new life can become uncomfortably intertwined. Consider also, however, the last line of the Epiphany gospel from Matthew, where he writes of the magi, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Here is danger, but here also is the chance for something completely new. Having met the infant Jesus, the wise men are compelled to take another road. And so it is for us, in the dying and being raised to new life that lies at the heart of the Christian life.
This Epiphany season, the Episcopal Church invites its members to read together a book of the Bible that is intimately involved with matters of life and death: the Epistle to the Romans. If you’d like to see more information and a schedule for reading Romans on your own, follow this link:
May the peace of Christ, who is the light to all the nations, be with you and your families in this season.
Yours faithfully in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Kara Slade