A friend of mine and I were talking about Köln – Cologne if you prefer. I was perplexed, as he said he didn’t think very much of it. It then turned out that he had left the railway station by the back door instead of the front door. Had he left by the front door, he would have found himself facing the north side of one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in the world.
Fortunately, I used the front door on New Year’s Day 1987. What I was doing in Köln is too long a story to tell here, but there was I, and there were they. Three kings from Persian lands afar. The Magi. For the choir of the cathedral in Köln is where they now rest. Allegedly.
The shrine (pictured below) is rather impressive, as shrines usually are. It is obviously designed for three departed magi. The only problem is that we don’t know whether there were three of them – Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us. He certainly doesn’t call them kings. And there’s nothing to suggest that they were all male either. What Matthew does tell us is that they were magoi; that they were, literally, Oriental; and that they had rather more brilliance, curiosity, open-heartedness, and wit, than Herod, who, unfortunately, they happened upon first of all. And what we need to know – hence at least a hundred Christmas carols – is that they had three gifts.
Over the centuries these gifts have been interpreted as having what one carol calls ‘mystic meaning’: gold = king, incense = God, myrrh = death. Whether or not we are meant to quite infer this from what the magoi offer to the child is not spelled out in the Gospels, but the theological genie is very much out of the bottle. And if you’ve not yet heard the lovely Brian Sibley stories on Radio 4 in the run-up to Christmas, there’s much to enjoy there.
In The Journey of the Magi, T. S. Eliot eschews sentimentality, and brings us – not without a shimmering beauty – to a very different place. The poem begins with words which are not Eliot’s, but Lancelot Andrewes'. Preaching before King James I in 1622:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
The poem is as rich in mystic meaning as the magoi’s gifts, and is worthy of slow, meditative reading. Its conclusion is unsettling and uneasy. The Birth that has been witnessed haunts the narrator to the Death – the ‘old dispensation’ no longer meaningful, or possible. And tucked away in line 31 is an extraordinary description of the scene:
‘it was (you may say) satisfactory’.
These lines were adored by the Bishop who ordained me, and we discussed them from time to time. Are we meant to denote an undertone of the theology of the cross (remember the Prayer Book: a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world)? Writing to a correspondent in 1958, Eliot’s secretary wrote ‘He has asked me to say that he does not regard it as unsatisfactory that several people should disagree about the meaning of the word ‘satisfactory’ in The Journey of the Magi’. I think we are indeed meant to realize that the story of our salvation is very much a part of the incarnation. Why else does Eliot’s text pinpoint ‘three trees on the low sky’ on Christmas Eve’s temperate dawn?
The manifestation (epiphany) of Christ is not a historical one-off. It is constant, and present, and real. It is not only in the spectacular and mystical, but in the ways deep and the weather sharp. And it is (you may say) –