Epiphany: "Led by a Star"

The Revd Brutus Green

The greatest Christian poem of the twentieth-century, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, is prefaced by a quotation from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: ‘although the Logos is common to all, most people live as if they had their own private understanding’. Logos here means ‘reason’, ‘principle’, ‘understanding’, or most famously in John’s Gospel ‘Word’. Eliot adopts this language most explicitly in Ash Wednesday, writing:

And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

In Four Quartets he describes this as

The still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.

God, eternal, still, yet more dynamic than all creation, is at the centre of the turning world.

Eliot here is allowing his only little epiphany story. The way into reading his final, most important work; his statement of the Christian faith, is through a pagan philosopher; one who has grasped something of this Logos, common to all, centuries before the Word is made flesh. The kings, the wise men or magi, are of course not Jews, still less Christians. They are one of the shadows in the gospels that point to the extending of God’s kingdom to the gentiles, even as they are also here to proclaim Christ’s Jewish kingship. But, importantly, even though they are pagan, their knowledge of the world, their knowledge of the stars, has given them a glimpse into the reality of this wondrous event.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Christian faith is the combination of the universal and particular in the birth of Jesus, often called the scandal of particularity. On the one hand a tiny Jewish boy is born at a specific time and place such that few would take notice. And yet this is the Word made flesh, the central axis of creation, God made man, ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’, the salvation of all people. This is what the magi here signify for us - a recognition of the universal significance of Christ for all the world, that God is not made flesh for the few, but for the whole, and that intimations of the Incarnation run through all creation waiting to be discovered by the enquiring mind. But should this give us cause for concern? After all the magi are represented here as astrologers, and Christianity has a long history of intolerance to all philosophies which fall outside its doctrinal basis. New age fandangos, and interest in the occult and supernatural, is very much alive and kicking in twenty-first century UK.

Perhaps though the inclusion of this story of the magi should remind us that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy’ and of a certain humility towards the beliefs of others. The measure of these things, as it was for the magi, is whether they lead us to kneel at the manger. That which is true and good will lead us to the revelation of God as love, which is at the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. The discovery of the divine Word, is the discovery of frail human flesh together with the sacrificial love of God.

There are many things that lead us in life. Frequently lamented is the influence of those other stars with their rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles. While on the train this weekend I heard an eighteen year old girl on her gap y[e]ar excitedly telling her friend how she had watched the royal wedding again with her mum and that she couldn’t wait for her own already mostly planned wedding. As Cassius says, though, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves.’ We choose who we listen to, and very often it is to those who most confirm our own prejudices.

As Eliot tells us in ‘the Journey of the Magi’ for the kings:

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.

Perhaps we see here another way of testing what we discern to be true about the world in terms of what it costs us, how great our tenacity is is staying our course, what we are willing to commit to it.

At the end of the poem one of the magi reflects:

 All this was a long time ago, I remember,
 And I would do it again, but set down
 This set down
 This: were we lead all that way for
 Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
 We had evidence and no doubt. I have 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.

Perhaps the journey changed the kings. Perhaps they thought they knew what they were looking for when they set out, but was it the same thing they expected when they arrived? Were they the same people who returned who went looking for a new king?

The epiphany season is the season of revelation - we remember the birth and infancy of Christ, his baptism and first miracle, all of which reveal him as the Son of God. All of these events contain elements of surprise - the poverty of the stable, the ordinariness of Mary and Joseph’s home, the Son of God being baptized by a mere man. The revelation of God is not always found by the people we expect, and it reveals a God who is often unexpected. And when we remember that it is these Eastern pagan stargazers who not only find Jesus, but in their gifts first prophesy his future, we should remember those other words of Eliot, that: ‘the only wisdom we can hope to acquire /Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.’