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… ~ T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi
At the dawn of every holiday season, I re-read a wonderful, thought provoking book titled The Journey of the Magi: In Search of the Birth of Jesus written by Paul William Roberts, which is a delightfully funny but tragically sad contemporary travelogue that details the journey of the Magi overland to Bethlehem, through Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. The Magi – also popularly known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings – were distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As to who exactly the Magi were, has been subject to many interpretations, some saying that they were astrologers. The Holy Scriptures makes no mention of wise men or kings and in the Gospel of Mathew in Chapter 2 they are described as “some men from the East” and “visitors from the East.
It is curious that the title of the book by Paul William Roberts is identical to the title of the poem published by T. S. Eliot in 1927 related to Christmas. In the poem Eliot concludes: “All this was a long time ago, I remember, and I would do it again, but set down, this set down, 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”.
Eliot, through a magus (one of the three magi) makes us wonder whether spiritual transformation is an ultimate solace; a comfort or a mere ongoing journey through birth and death, seemingly shifting the joyous event of the birth of Jesus to an ambivalent and complex open interpretation of how we should view Christmas in our lives. It illuminates our spiritual consciousness and takes us from the darkness of ignorance and simplistic understanding of Christmas to a heightened realization that our eventual destiny lies in the journey itself: “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”.
Eliot’s allegorical poem describes the spiritual journey of the Magi in three parts, exploring the difficulty in finding meaning in a world of entropy, chaos and greed. Symbolically, the first part depicts the harshness of life: of disillusionment; alienation, and the dilemma we face when we leave our comfort zones in pursuance of the meandering rat race that is life, obviating the true meaning of life. The second part of the poem is replete with poignancy of the divine nature of the birth of Christ in contrast to the ordinary reality of the world around us. The third part is about the experience of the magi – the disillusionment they face in the empty and meaningless life after their profoundly transformative spiritual experience at the manger at the foot of Lord Jesus. Eventually, what the poem reflects is our innate desire to return to the divine.
In a sense, there is some commonality between Eliot’s poem and Paul William Robert’s book in that the overall arduousness and disingenuity of the mundane world that the poem depicts resonates with the encounters the travelers experience with eclectic characters, from smugglers to Zoroastrian priests.
One tends to wonder why in every manger displayed at Christmas there is a light on while the rest of Bethlehem was in pitch darkness. For me, Christmas is the story of light, as is Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, and of giving, which will go on for 8 days. So is Deepavali, the festival of lights for the Hindus.
The purity of Christmas gives us solace from a world of inequity, corruption and evil. The symbolism of Christmas, particularly in its original setting, brings to bear the real significance of the event as a harbinger of peace and happiness and the heralding of understanding and compassion particularly of those in power toward their fellow beings. Christmas is a time for introspection; of self-examination for self worth. It is a time that all of us should demonstrably show our capacity to shed differences and work toward the common human goal of peace. The Christmas season calls us to nurture our boundless spirit of giving, particularly to those in distress. When it comes to giving, we must not distinguish between our own people and others around the world suffering the enormity of bloody wars that spew fire and fury. Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” must emerge within us carrying the message that we do not, and indeed should not shut our doors to those who genuinely need our help.
On 25 December each year the world celebrates the feast of Christmas, when Jesus – also called the Prince of Peace – was born. It is said in Isiah 9.6 : and the world rejoiced and cried out, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!” In other words, the spirit of Christmas should essentially bestow peace on earth and goodwill to all humanity. The spirit of Christmas is also “truth” as mentioned in the Holy Quran – that Jesus stood for the word of Allah, or truth: Islamicity.org records that “though Jesus is mentioned by name in twenty-five places in the Holy Quran he is also addressed with respect as: “Ibne Maryam” – son of Mary; as Masi (Heb) Messiah – translated as Christ; “Abd-ullah” servant of Allah; “Rasul -Ullah” – Messenger of Allah. He is spoken of as “the word of God”, as “the spirit of God”, as a “Sign of God”, and numerous other epithets of honor spread over fifteen different chapters. The Holy Quran honors this great Messenger of God, and over the past fourteen hundred years Muslims continue to hold Jesus as a symbol of truth”.
One interpretation of the words of the Old Testament and the Holy Quran is that Jesus – The Ruler of Israel – ruled through peace and truth. This is so pertinent in the current context of the world – of fake news; disingenuity and self-service on the one hand and the brutal destruction of humans and cities on the other. The symbolism of Christmas, particularly in its original setting, brings to bear the real significance of the event as a harbinger of peace and happiness and the heralding of understanding and compassion particularly of those in power toward their fellow beings.
The past few years have shown us that life is an illusion – of gentle faces in cracking mirrors- their images clouded by too many tears. Children have been killed; abducted; abused. Some have just disappeared. Let darkness not keep their secrets hidden and safe. Let us hope the child of eternal love will keep a light on for them at Christmas when they finally come home.