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.
So T. S. Eliot’s magi say at the beginning of the poem “Journey of the Magi.” But T. S. Eliot takes their words almost verbatim from a sermon—an old sermon, preached to the King of England on Christmas Day in 1622 by the great Lancelot Andrewes.
A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, “the very dead of winter.”
On a day like this the Magi come—20 below, and the snow deep—on a day like this the 17th century preacher tells of their coming in his chilly church 400 years ago. They come on a day like this, and that is to Lancelot Andrewes amazing.
Because surely it would make more sense to stay inside. Stay warm, wait a while—at least till it’s not so cold that the snow squeaks when you walk on it. Stay warm; wait a while. What’s the hurry, after all? The child will still be there in the spring, when the journey is not so hard. But the magi come, not through snow, it is true, but through other difficulties just as great, through desert and thirst, rocks and crags, brigands haunting the roads, through the wilderness of Arabia, through rocky Petra they come, leaving their homes and people and lives to walk for years to find the child.
“Where is the one born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship Him.”
They have seen a star; they have seen His star. There is in this child something worth dropping everything for, something worth a long journey, even such a long journey, something worth the difficulties along the way.
It is not sensible, their journey at just the worst time of the year. But it is reasonable, Lancelot Andrewes says. It is their reasonable worship, prompted by the star, a desire at the sight of his star to come to the child, the conviction that this is important, that they have found it, the one thing that makes everything else in their lives worthwhile. It is not sensible, their long journey on a difficult way, and yet it is the only thing that makes sense: to follow the star to the place where they will find the One who makes life worth living, the One to whom they can offer their lives, the One before whom they can fall on their knees and pour out their hearts in joy.
It is not sensible, their journey. But it is reasonable. Because at the sight of His star everything else, their home and all the hazards of the journey, everything else pales in comparison. “Where is the one born King of the Jews? We have seen his star and we have come to worship him.” It begins with the act of God. The magi are given a star, and they follow it. Such a long journey, the ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the very dead of winter. The magi are given a star and they drop everything to follow it, knowing, somehow—although they do not yet know this Christ—that it is worth everything they have and do and are to follow it, that this star leads them to the One who will be everything in the world to them.
This is their reasonable worship, their faith: to see the star, and when they see it, to follow. Vidimus, venimus, Lancelot Andrewes says: we saw, we came, they say; no pause between the two, no waiting till the time was right for such a journey, for such a child, for such a worship. No weighing the options: should we follow or not? What will it cost? How difficult is the way? How solitary? What might I lose…or gain? No. A star! They said. We have seen His star. It rises in our East. We come to worship Him. Vidimus, venimus, ut adoremus. We saw and we came, to worship Him.
This is their faith, too. To see, to follow, and to fall at his feet.
When they saw the star had stopped they rejoiced with exceeding-great joy. And they went into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.
They follow the star, this gift they are given, all the long and difficult way. And the end of their journey is joy. ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα: when they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced with exceeding-great joy.
We too are given a gift. We too see the star that rises in the sky. This morning we hear of the star, this morning with the magi we see it rising in the East, this sign that God has given. We have the star, because we have the book, the Bible in which the star is written, the whole story of the child and the light that in him rises over our world. This morning we have the star, and the magi and their faith; they live before us; we can see their hope and their wonder and their journey. And right here at the beginning of the story we hear the promise: this is the path that leads to joy. This is the star to follow; this is the child whose true and thorn-crowned face will be everything to you.
There is a reason it is a star that leads the way. It is light that rises over the world in the birth of the child: Christ the morning star, in whom all the peoples, even those far away, even we, even now, all the longing hearts will find their peace.
It is a star we see this morning. Christ rises over our world, the child in whose love the world is healed.
In his steadfast and costly love.
The cost is already there, in the magi’s journey this morning, in the rage of Herod, the bent world afraid and raging at the call of God, at the grace of God, at the claim of God on our hearts, on his world, the power of God to reign, His call, his power, His peace. Herod’s rage at God’s claim shadows the story, and the weeping of Rachael is heard.
But the magi say, “Follow.” This is the road toward hope, because it is the one road that is true. At its beginning the star, Christ the morning star, and at its end the child and three trees rising on the low sky. This is the road toward hope, hope that is real, because it passes through the dark places of the world. Because this is the child who in the dark places of the world is with us, who makes the blood of the children his own. This is the child in whom light rises precisely over the dark places of the world. That is why the magi thought it worth everything to follow him. That is why they brought their treasures and poured them out at his feet.
We have seen the star. May we follow like they did. May His star rise this day in our hearts; may we rise and go to him—daily, making our lives the place of his light, pouring out our hearts in prayer and faithfulness and acts of service, through ways deep and weather sharp, if need be.
May we rise and go to Him, that our lives may become an offering, all that we are and all that we have an offering, poured out in joy at his feet.
- Adoration of the Magi, from a fresco in Cappadocia
2. Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)