By another way
‘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.’
Maybe those words describe some of the travels you have recently made or are soon about to make; they certainly remind me of the journey I made with a group of companions last year, walking for five days from Shrewsbury to Lichfield facing right into the jaws of the Beast from the East. Winter for most sensible people is not a time to hit the road; we would much rather curl up with a cup of something warming, a good book, a favourite TV programme, or simply stay in bed. How great to have the chance to hibernate!
In fact, the words I quoted are from the beginning of T S Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, telling of the long and difficult route followed by wise men from the East who sought out the Christ. It was no fun for them: ‘the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly, and the villages dirty and charging high prices’ – very different from our pilgrim experience in Shropshire and Staffordshire last year, when we were shown only friendliness and hospitality. Nevertheless, the magi persisted, and were rewarded with a life-changing encounter. Eliot describes it in astonishingly understated language: ‘not a moment too soon finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory’. It is the remembrance of that encounter which we make every new year on the great Feast of the Epiphany, the revealing of Christ to the nations. This year, I have the joy of celebrating that feast at Hodnet in our diocese, where two centuries ago a young priest called Reginald Heber wrote one of the loveliest of Epiphanytide hymns: ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning, dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid’. Like the magi of old, we begin our year as those drawn out of the familiarity and comfort of our everyday lives places to meet with the transforming light of Christ; this is our summons to discipleship, and it takes courage and determination for us to respond.
But the direction of travel in Eliot’s poem is not one way only. The Gospel of Matthew describes how the magi returned to their own country ‘by another way’, and for Eliot this becomes a metaphor for all that has changed in them and around them as they travel back to the everyday: ‘We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’. Each of them must work out in their own place what this strange call to newness of life means for them and theirs; and each of them also is forever compelled to tell to their people what happened to them when they saw the face of Christ. In other words, each must follow their own calling – whatever that may be, we call it vocation; and each must share with others the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus the Son of God – telling that story is what we call evangelism.
Discipleship, vocation and evangelism came together at Epiphany for those three magi. Discipleship, vocation and evangelism were threaded through the life of Chad, our first bishop, in whose footsteps we seek to follow Christ. Discipleship, vocation and evangelism are the three priorities which I want our diocese to embrace at every level as we set out afresh in the depths of winter through our journey into a new year. As you think for yourself what discipleship, vocation and evangelism might mean in your life and the life of your church and community, you might find it helpful to read through, slowly, attentively and prayerfully, Eliot’s Journey of the Magi:
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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon finding the place; it was (you might 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.