Matthew 2:1-12 and T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
In our second reading of the morning, we hear of the wise men’s journey across the desert as imagined by T.S. Eliot. They are ill-prepared and cold, they did not understand what lay ahead. They brought girls bearing sherbet. The girls are miserable, the camels are miserable – accustomed to a very different journey, the beasts collapse in the snow; the girls may well contribute to the voices that whisper in the ears of the magi: this is folly.
There is doubt on this journey: doubt of self, doubt of purpose. Why are we here? Where are we going? Are we fools? We who have lived in pursuit of truth and wisdom: are we fools to be continuing this pursuit in a frigid desert?
Are we fools?
Is there a faster way to work oneself into melancholy than posing this question? For those who live in pursuit of something we have not yet see come fully into being, for those who hope for a world free from suffering and injustice, from cruelty and fear, it is easy to see the dawn of a new year and wonder. Are we fools to hope for such a thing, again, still?
I was subtle in suggesting which movie I wanted to see on date night with my husband Josh the other day. He acquiesced and took me to see the new film version of Les Miserables. I’d been listening to various recordings of the musical constantly on Pandora since switching from my Christmas station, and I recently downloaded the book, figuring that it was well past time to take it up for someone who’s long since memorized the music. He’s sharp, my husband. Can read me like a book.
I’m familiar, then, perhaps overly so, with the story, with the music. But despite my familiarity, I was nonetheless caught by surprise. There is a moment when the students leading the uprising at the barricade realize that there is no one else coming to fight, that their resistance is the only one. They are called back to hope, perhaps not surprisingly, through song… but then we hear the steady, ringing steps of the army approaching through the narrow stone streets. The soldiers arrive, they form seemingly endless ranks: rows kneeling, rows standing, rows reloading. The young men at the barricade are overcome.
It’s a devastating moment, when Enjoloras, the leader, suggests that there need not be, ought not be, loss of life. He invites, kindly, hopefully, any who need to leave the barricade with their lives to do so, before the fighting begins.
Are they fools? Why don’ t they leave? The justice they desire will not arrive this day, the transformation of society. But there are yet moments of transformation and revelation. For those who bear witness, things will never be the same. The wise man reports on it in the Eliot: we returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.
After a moment of clarity, an experience of revelation, an epiphany, we are no longer at ease in the worlds we have called home.
I read advice columns with some regularity, and based on that entirely scientific survey, I wonder if the revelations we’ve come to expect in our culture are largely negative: facets of a parent or other loved one’s life uncovered after death; secrets of infidelities and crimes committed, abuse finally brought to the light. It is good and important to learn that all of us have known sin and failure. To give air and breath to old hurts and buried secrets. Truth, more often than not, will set us free if we have the courage to speak it. But I long for stories of revelation and epiphany that send us into the future, not the past.
Les Miserables, the musical, is a story of epiphanies, and viewers are pointed (one reviewer said manipulated) toward the understanding of the parallel and conflicting revelations through repeated phrases and melodies. Jean Valjean, the thief transformed by mercy, and Javert, the inspector who pursues him through the years in the name of justice and the Law, sing awfully similar soliloquies. What never fails to move me, however, is the difference in them.
Valjean’s comes near the beginning of the story. (At least in the musical; I am multiple chapters into Hugo’s novel and I haven’t even met our protagonist yet). He has just been released from 20 long years of grueling, bitter time in chains, only to learn that he will never be free as he was; his parole provides an itinerary for travel, his papers tell all that he encounters that he is a dangerous man. He is like the Son of Man, reviled, with no place to lay his head. The film dramatizes this powerfully, showing a filthy, exhausted Hugh Jackman freezing and stumbling through French towns and mountains. Until. Until he is invited inside to spend the night in the home of a Bishop. This is a kindness, one which he repays by nicking the silver and taking off in the night. He is returned in shackles, brought before the Bishop by the law. The Bishop tells the officers the silver was a gift, and adds the most valuable in the house, the candlesticks, to the bounty. He tells Valjean that he must use this silver to become a better man, that he has bought his soul for God. Valjean is at a loss; the world has always hated him, and he, it. He has been at odds, but in the light of this grace, this mercy, he resolves that another story must be told. This epiphany leads, indeed, to a life of solitude, too often on the run, but also to a life of mercies shared.
Inspector Javert gets his first big number in a song called “Stars,” a fitting one for a day like today, and in many ways he is as the wise men, following the stars, which hold their course and their aim, as a guide toward truth. Truth and Law, Righteousness and Order. Those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward, he sings.
But as the story progresses, we see that even the righteous may err, confusing justice for callousness in the face of suffering. When Javert is finally the recipient of grace and mercy and not simply a witness to it, he still cannot believe it. He feels he has been made a fool of: I am the law and the law is not mocked… There is nothing on earth that we share; it is either Valjean or Javert.
The revelation: of kindness, of self-sacrificial love, is too much for Javert. He cannot make sense of it, cannot or will not be changed. We cannot fault him, not really. Our brains and our hearts do much to reconcile conflicting visions, ideas, even subconsciously. We all have literal blind spots in our eyes, places that lack photo receptors. A simple exercise demonstrates how they work: look sometime at a patterned background with a mark on it. At varying distances from your eye, the mark will disappear. That’s your blind spot. But what’s interesting is that you’d think that in the absence of the mark, in the absence of any receptors, you’d see white. Or black. But you don’t: your brain fills in what it thinks should be there. You see the patterned background.
True revelation is hard and rare. To see the gaps, to see what is missing, what is different, what is dissonant. Revelation comes with consequence, and often, a call to action.
For Marius, the young student in love, he is struck by love, and sings what was right seems wrong and what was wrong seems right. He now must weigh conflicting loyalties, between the call of his lonely heart and the call of his brothers and sisters for a life beyond the bonds of subsistence. Between his well-seated fears and his desire for courage.
The wise men following the star have been shone a sign, but they look for signs in interpreting it, for understanding what it might mean. Their first attempts have fallen flat, leading to silken girls in the frozen desert, irritated help, bewildered camels. They looked for a King, and end up in the court of Herod. The greatness they have sought is greeted by the Empire-courting ways of this anxious ruler, but it feels strange. They have not followed the star so far to worship him. They continue on, still looking for greatness, their eyes casting blindly about, until the star comes to rest.
It rests on a sight of greatness: a holy place, a holy family. A star child – greatness and order, law and righteousness, in a body in need of mercy, in need of care and grace and gentleness. The eternal, mysterious God, incarnate. For these magi, these seekers, their old ways of knowing, their prior expectations have been upended and subverted by revelation.
To see such a thing, to bear witness, is to be changed. The definition of greatness is altered, the knowledge and understanding of what is right and good, the certainty of where truth and righteousness lie – these are different now. The magi find a birth of something new, and the death of what is old.
It is a hard truth: they have been deceived by Herod, they have been foolish in the means of their quest. We, too, have been foolish in our quests as individuals and a nation: we have sought security in weapons and in war, greatness in power and imperialism, truth in blind certainty and reckless commitment to questionable ends.
But the quest of the magi, our quest, is nonetheless no fools’ errand. In searching, in seeking, in following the star, the magi have indeed seen something revealed. They have opened themselves to a new reality. It is a difficult one: the truth that this innocent child would suffer; that what is good is often nearly too hard to bear. It is hard and bitter agony to know that Herod stays on the throne while the Christ child flees for his life.
And yet, when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
The consequence of revelation, of things that are true but that we have not yet seen and known, is hard – but to be touched, to see for the first time, can be unspeakable delight. Can be joy beyond all measure. Revelation is a sharing of the divine with the world, with us. And such divine truth can be a thing of great beauty. When the people sing together at the conclusion of Les Mis, raising their voices in hope for the new world just begun, as with any affirmation that death is not the end of the story, it is achingly beautiful.
How will we be changed? Will we reorder our lives? Will we despair for our mistaken visions and priorities? Or will we begin to see the new reality being born among us?
In the novel of Les Miserables, the figure of the righteous Bishop is so powerful because he is one of the few who can hold together justice and mercy. He bears witness to Christ, he reveals God to all those whom he touches. And in the revelation he offers, he is tender, naming the hurts and brokenness of our world’s and our own despair, but nonetheless pointing to hope, to new life, to a dispensation made new.
“He sought to counsel and calm the despairing man, by pointing out to him the resigned man, and to transform the grief which gazes upon a grave by showing him the grief which fixes its gaze upon a star.” (Chapter 4)
May we on this Epiphany day, despite our griefs, despite our fears, nevertheless see the Word of God, and fix our gaze upon his star. Amen.