The Journey Of The Magi
by T.S. Eliot
‘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.’ And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
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.
(Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, 1894)
Christmas is, no doubt, the biggest holiday of the year in America. It’s a gigantic event. And I love the Christmas season – the lights and decorations and music and gift-giving. It’s a special event.
But some of it bothers me. Everybody celebrates but many don’t seem to know what’s being celebrated. Some school districts have changed “Christmas” to “Winter Celebration.” Does that even make sense? Celebrate winter – celebrate icy roads and frozen pipes and the flu!
And people use things that don’t have any connection with Christ to celebrate. Like some Christmas cards – a picture of a mailbox or a coyote howling at the moon or a stuffed bear to bring us “holiday greetings.” What does that mean?
Do you see what I’m saying? People want to celebrate; they don’t know what to celebrate; they celebrate anyway.
So, with Christmas ramping up, let’s focus our attention on the reality. Let’s set this in our hearts and maybe we can get through the season with a strong hold on what we’re celebrating. Here’s the story.
Chapter 1: BEGINNING BEFORE THE BEGINNING (John 1:1-5)
We can’t say that the story of Christ’s birth has a beginning because the Son of God does not have a beginning. John puts it: he was in the beginning with God and he was God and he made everything and he is the source of life.
Jesus Christ is the pre-existent, eternal Son of God. He was present at the beginning of the universe. He was the co-creator of all there is. Life, not just physical existence but complete life, comes from him.
The Son of God has always been and always will be; he has no beginning and no ending. He exists outside time and space. He is eternal. He is divine, the second person of the Triune Godhead. He possesses within himself absolute life.
At some point beyond time and space, God the Father and Son and Spirit decided that the Son would come into time and space onto the earth as a human being. The Creator would step into creation as one of the creatures. The one who existed in absolute glory and majesty and authority would lay that aside and live in the limitations of humanity.
I want to emphasize: that decision came from power not weakness. The awesome, glorious Son of God willingly and intentionally chose to become a man. He took that step out of powerful righteousness, purpose, and love. The story began before the beginning.
The time came for it to happen. Paul calls it the fullness of time in Galatians 4:4. He meant that everything God planned for preparation had been completed. When that time arrived, “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” God decided that his Son would come into the world as a baby. That meant human parents were needed. A woman would carry the baby and give birth.
Chapter 2: THE SELECTION FOR THE CONCEPTION
(Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-24)
God selected a young couple in Nazareth, Israel – Mary and Joseph. They were betrothed – pledged to marry but not yet married. Mary was likely a teenager, Joseph a little older. God revealed to them what he was doing.
An angel named Gabriel visited Mary one day. The 14 or 15 year-old girl was frightened when Gabriel showed up. I would be, too, and so would you. He assured her that there was nothing to worry about; she was being favored by God for a great purpose. He told her she would become pregnant and deliver a son she was to name Jesus. He would actually be the Son of the Most High – Yahweh – and he would rule an eternal Kingdom. She would not become pregnant in the normal human way. She was a virgin and would remain a virgin until after the birth. She would become pregnant by the power of God through the Holy Spirit. Mary responded to this astonishing announcement by saying, “I am your servant. Let it be.”
When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he must have been shocked and saddened. It seemed that Mary had cheated on him. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it so he decided to end the betrothal very quietly. Then an angel spoke to him in a dream and explained what was happening: “Joseph, don’t be afraid. Mary is still a virgin. She is pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit. Her son will be the Savior.” With incredible faith, Joseph believed the angel and went ahead and married Mary.
So, the eternal and awesome Son of God became a fetus in the uterus of a young Jewish girl. He who ruled in Heavenly glory and majesty now for nine months developed in the darkness and warmth of Mary’s womb.
Chapter 3: BIRTH IN A BETHLEHEM BARN (Luke 2:1-7)
In about 4 – 5 BC, the emperor of Rome, Augustus, issued an executive order for everyone under his control to be registered. It was a census, but instead of census takers going to the people, the people had to go to their home towns to register. Joseph was originally from Bethlehem; he was in fact a descendant of King David of Bethlehem. He had to go there. Mary went with him.
It was around 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was a slow trip, most likely on foot. Maybe they had a donkey, but the Bible doesn’t actually say they did. Mary was 9 months pregnant. I can’t imagine what that was like. Those of you who have been pregnant can probably relate.
They finally arrived in Bethlehem, normally a small, quiet village. Because of the census, every lodging place was taken. Joseph and Mary could not find any place to stay until someone allowed them to use a barn of some kind. Mary went into labor. Not in a gleaming, bacteria-free delivery room, but in a dark, filthy barn, the Son of God was born. No JC Penney baby clothes, just strips of old cloth. No new cradle, just a feed trough. He whom the universe could not contain arrived as a six-pound infant.
As Luci Shaw wrote, “Older than eternity, now he is new.” Our King, our Savior has come.
That’s good news, and people needed to know about it, just like today.
Chapter 4: CELEBRATION AND ADORATION
(Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:1-12)
Who would be the first to know? Shepherds. Plain, ordinary – in fact, despised and outcast – shepherds. Not the Emperor. Not the High Priest. A band of probably 6-8 shepherds had bedded down with their sheep. It was a night like so many – just dull routine. Suddenly the routine was shattered. An angel stood before them. The majestic light of God’s glory engulfed them. They were scared stiff. They heard the angel announce, “Today your Savior was born. You can find him in Bethlehem sleeping in a manger.” Then the darkness of the night sky was filled with a crowd of angels giving praise to God.
After that concert was over, the shepherds left their sheep and went to find the baby. And they did find him just like the angel said. As they left the barn and headed back to the pastures, they told everyone they met and they went whooping and hollering their praise to God – their Savior was here!
Sometime later – maybe a few days, maybe several weeks or months – some other guys showed up: the wise men or magi from the east. They were probably followers of astrology and philosophy from Babylon. They had seen an unusual star which signified the birth of one who would be King of the Jews. The star guided them to the house where Joseph and Mary and Jesus had moved. They entered the house and found the Baby. The magi knew he was more than a King for just Israel. He was the King. They bowed low and presented gifts. The worshipped the Child. They honored him. They exalted him. They adored him.
Both the shepherds and the magi understood something of the significance of the birth in the barn. No one like that baby had ever been born. No one like him has been born since. Messiah. Savior. Lord. Son of God. The good news of his arrival was proclaimed, and there was celebration and adoration.
Well, that’s the story, but it’s not THE END. The story of Christ’s coming continues right into our lives. He came for us – to fight our battles, to reign over us, to lead us, to save us, to restore us, to transform us, to love us. The Son of God has come. That’s what Christmas is about. That’s really what we celebrate.
What does it mean to you?