by James D. Witmer
At this Advent time of year, I appreciate T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi for its reminder that, in Jesus, people have always gotten more than they bargained for.
I love that, having glimpsed the new Kingdom of God, Eliot’s magi cannot be content with citizenship in the kingdom of sin. I often wish I was more similarly ruined.
This is a weighty truth, but also a joyful one, because the hope of “another death,” is – in Christ – the hope of another life!
I liked the poem from my first reading, but never found the hidden joy until I heard “Journey,” by Vincent Anastasi. Based on Eliot’s poem, Anastasi’s song deftly juggles a few of the lines to make the hope more visible. As with any good song, it also uses melody and instrumentation to communicate its emotion. This might sound silly, but I often get chills listening to the verses, and I can’t hear the last chorus without tapping a foot.
So this Advent, read the poem. Then listen to the song. Then, maybe, read the poem again.
‘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, sore-footed, 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 arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may 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.
If you like the song, you should consider getting the album: Vincent Anastasi: At the In-Between