Saturday, 3 January 2009

The Journey of the Magi.

Here is a photograph of our Epiphany House, replacing the Christmas Crib until the day before Candlemas, when we will bring the whole extended season to an end with the customary procession of light and blessing of the candles and oil for the year bought with the Epiphany donations. I am afraid the picture is not great, I had to use the flash as it was dark by the time I had finished., but you get the impression. You may wonder where Our Lady and child are, so do I. There will probably be another picture of this happy scene tomorrow.

Journeying is much on our minds of late I suppose and much on the mind of whoever is to be the next Archbishop of Westminster as well. If the rumours are true that the Abbot of Pluscarden has been approached, then his quiet sanctity has been noticed. I have been to Pluscarden a few times and have always been impressed by the ability of the community to live the Rule in joy within the context of their life half in and half out of the modern world. Speculation, however financially profitable and morally dubious an industry the BBC may have made out of it, is futile though. We watch and wait. Our journey is continuing, battle lines are being drawn which pain me greatly and we face uncertainty with, I hope, conviction and fortitude. Your scribe has little other choice. Good news for me, though, comes as well, for I have a curacy arranged. I will announce it once the paperwork is out of the way and the people of the Parish have been informed.

As Sicilians know, the best swordfish is fished between now and April in the Straits of Messina, dangerously and sometimes illegally. The small boats painted like fish have been abandoned, their disguise rejected in favour of larger craft, but the ships still fish in the same straits, which will be more familiar to you all as the place of Scylla and Charybdis, the inspiration for so many 'rock and a hard place' sayings, the two monsters who guard the opening in the land only to open to a greater horror and further journeys. I like swordfish very much, with capers and mint and pepper as prepared in the Italian restaurant on Lambs Conduit Street, down the road from the Lamb Public House, where the 'snob screen' can be seen still. I wonder how many of us feel stuck between two evils at the moment and wonder when the journey will end? Maybe we can take inspiration from the Wise Man, who TS Eliot makes the protagonist of this poem? He is unimpressed with the Christ Child, but realises that everything has changed. He completes a tiring, sweaty journey to embark on a far bigger one, which will certainly lead to his death in discomfort. His Epiphany is shared with Christ, both of whom are born to die and play their different parts in the mystery. Nothing easy is offered, nothing comforting is taken, but life everlasting is promised, albeit in a way which may not have been chosen.

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 when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
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.