Two Poems for Epiphany
A sermon preached by John M Hull in the Chapel of the Queen’s Foundation on Tuesday 10th January 2006
Words constantly change their meanings. A friend of mine some years ago used to say that there was no greater compliment a discriminating diner could pay a restaurant than to say that the food was satisfactory. Nothing more than this could be asked or expected. If someone of such critical taste was satisfied, the food must be excellent.
Today it is very different. I quote from a recent OFSTED report. ‘Teaching that is generally satisfactory with little that is better, merits a judgement of unsatisfactory’. Here is another example: ‘In a stubborn core’, the inspectors report, ‘of one in three lessons, the teaching is satisfactory’.
This is surely the implication T.S. Eliot wishes us to draw when the truly wise ones, after a whole lot of moaning about the journey, concluded that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was, one might say, ‘satisfactory’.
Had they been the OFSTED inspectors of today, this would mean that the performance of the mother, and possibly the father, was far from ‘very good’, and was not even ‘good’. Rather, to say that it was satisfactory means that the Virgin Mother only just escaped being placed under special measures.
Why is this? This is the bitter after-taste of Christmas, the moment when you think about your credit limit, when the kids' toys have nearly all broken, when the last awkward relative has finally gone and you’ve got your study back again, when you ruefully tidy up your sock draw and wonder how long it will be before your wine supplies are back to normal, yes, looking back, let’s face it, it was satisfactory.
The wise ones were only just satisfied because their journey to Bethlehem had left them with no place to go, with nowhere they could any longer feel at home. They had lost the comfort of their own country without discovering another land. They now find themselves in a kind of half-light, an in-between place, that is neither one thing nor another. To use the anthropological expression, they had been thrown into a liminality from which they had not been able to emerge.
To be liminal is to be at the limits, on the borders, to be marginal. The theological word with a rather similar meaning is ‘limbo’, the place which is neither heaven, nor hell, nor purgatory, an in-between sort of place. In anthropological studies, the role of the sacred is to create liminality, whether through ritual and ceremony, festivals, rites of passage, and sacred dance, somewhere where the ordinary rules and standards of life no longer apply, where rational judgement is suspended, where the unexpected strikes us with surprise, and we become rootless, disorientated, homeless and liberated.
This is why the truly wise ones wanted to do it all again, to try to get something at least clear in their heads, even if it meant a death, or a birth as hard as death, to commit themselves to the radical meaning of the experience they had almost had, to allow the liminality to do its job of prophetic transformation. But such a resolution was nothing but a wish, a dream. Their liminality remained permanent.
The second poem, the one by W B Yeats, takes up the story at the point where Eliot leaves it. Now the truly wise ones are thin with age, weariness and transcendence. Their painted, stiff clothes suggest vestments that have gone stale, their hovering in the blue sky suggests their heavenly irrelevance. Their worn, stone faces suggest their petrified emotions, calloused through too many tears, too many prayers, too much searching, endless yearning. These wise ones suggest the condition of those who have made liminality their home and not their point of protest.
The sacred is not a place to remain in. Did not Peter say to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good to be here. Let us make three little huts, one for each of us’; but the Master refused, and took them down the mountain to where their work lay waiting. Liminality only transforms through contrast. If it becomes habitual, it goes stale. The point of liminallity is not to stay there.
Come on, old wise ones! It is time to take off the beautiful robes, to strip off the vestments! Get down off your camels and get down to work!
This is why the wise ones are unsatisfied.
And here we find the deepest part of this strange and compelling poem. They turn unsatisfied from the turbulence of Calvary towards Bethlehem. What does this mean?
The cross is the point of absolute liminality, the place where God is edged out of the world. Here, liminality is fully accomplished, it is realised, seen in all its starkness.
Bethlehem is different. It is the hint of liminality without its fulfilment, the mere taste of an extremity to come, a promise. Calvary screams at us but the baby lies asleep in his mother’s arms. That is why the seekers turn towards Bethlehem.
Let us then, my pilgrim brothers and sisters, refuse to be like either of these wise ones! Unlike Eliot’s Magi, let us face up to the implications of the sacred! Let us also turn away from the staleness of religious lives dwelling only in the sacred. Let us however, like them, turn, for the time being, away from the explicit, the terrible nakedness of the man who was forsaken, and let us find our way to the stable, the promise, the little hint, the enigma of birth, the sheer wonder of an utter openness, an uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
John M Hull is Honorary Professor of Practical Theology
at The Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham.
The two poems are on the next page.
The Journey of The Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a 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 in 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.
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.