The modern plight of the ancient Magi

Children admire Ding-a-Ling, an Arabian Camel that helped Saint Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood celebrate the Epiphany on Jan. 7 after Mass.
Photo by James McBride

T.S. Eliot begins with a description that seems especially appropriate to the people of South Jersey at this time:

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of year

For a journey …”

And the camels he describes in his poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” are not complacent and sweet-natured like Ding-a-Ling, the one-humped, rented dromedary that helped parishioners celebrate the feast of the Epiphany last weekend at Saint Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood. Eliot’s camels “galled, sore-footed, refractory/Lying down in the melting snow.” But they were still easier to deal with than the grumbling, lustful camel men and some other problems along the way.

The journey, of course, is both literal and metaphorical. Since when has any spiritual journey been an easy one?

Eliot’s short poem, fewer than 50 lines, describes a hard trip, the worst part of it being the men’s own doubts, their worry that this long journey they had undertaken to call upon the newborn king “was all folly.”

Although the Magi are rulers of an exotic, ancient land, they are us.

Telling the story years later, as an old man anticipating his own death, the narrator is still trying to make sense of the contradictions and radical challenges posed by a new king, one who comes as a defenseless child in the poorest of circumstances.

When the Magi find “the place” — the lowly spot where the newborn king of the universe has been born, the place where God incarnate turns expectation upside down, anticipating Christ’s teaching about true wealth and sinful materialism — the rich man who travelled from a palace does not even try to describe it or comment on his shock and disillusionment. He says, in almost comic understatement, “it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

“The place” has “three trees on the low sky,” foreshadowing the crucifixion.

The late New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown, SS, described the story of the star and the Magi as the “gospel in miniature.” The men from the East, he says, on seeing the star of the King of the Jews at his birth, find a baby whose kingship would not be revealed until he would be crucified under the title The King of the Jews — and then raised.

Eliot’s Magi wonder, “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”

And this death, they sense, foretells the death of their former lives. They return home to their palaces, but are no longer at ease there “with an alien people clutching their gods.”

Is there a better description of someone trying to make sense of the Christian message in contemporary society?

Carl Peters is the Catholic Star Herald managing editor.