Anyone looking at a Christmas crib or Nativity Scene is immediately struck at the stark poverty, simplicity, and humility in which Baby Jesus was born. Wrapped in swaddling, lying in a manger in the middle of a desolate and gelid cave is certainly not the kind of setting fit for the Birth of the Divine. Apart from Mary, Joseph, and their donkey, a traditional crib is further decked with figures of shepherds, a few sheep, sometimes a cow or an ox and three dark-skinned kings; one with his head bowed, the other two kneeling.
The Good News was first announced to a group of poor shepherds who hurried to that particular spot in Bethlehem to pay homage to who they believed was the Messiah. Eventually, three men appear on the scene. In total contrast to the shepherds, they are magi or philosopher-kings from the East; and they offer extremely expensive gifts gold, frankincense, and myrrh as they too pay homage. They must have been well wrapped up in fine clothing to beat the winter cold and the story goes that they had also been travelling for a long time guided by a star to find a baby they were told would be the King of the Jews.
Christians have just celebrated Christmas, and today, January 6, marks the Feast of the Epiphany, a feast that spotlights the Three Kings from the East symbolizing the revelation of Jesus to the whole world. It is the feast which brings the Christmas period to a close.
When I was a schoolgirl, January 6 was still a public holiday which meant three full weeks of holidays. Somewhere along the way, political developments axed this holiday, so we went back to school earlier. As budding teenagers, we were more upset about curtailed holidays than anything else. As I look back, it always strikes me that despite having attended a Catholic nuns’ school (which meant two religion lessons a day) the imparting of religion was a tedious affair in which we were compelled to learn reams by rote. Attending Mass was no better. Even then it bothered me that there was little effort to fire enthusiasm and debate about our Faith to render it truly meaningful. It did not take long for us to listen in bored silence and merely deliver what was expected in assignments and examinations. Perhaps the nuns did not know any better, but those religion lessons were a guarantee to turn you agnostic or atheist and have a spiritual torpor grip you for life unless you did something about it.
It was many, many years later that the significance of the Epiphany struck home and went beyond the singing and swaying of ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’. And this was when I discovered T.S. Eliot’s poem aptly entitled ‘Journey of the Magi’. Despite, his typical plunge into countless allusions, Eliot who wrote this poem in 1927, the year of his conversion to Catholicism, makes no reference to the Christian Feast of the Epiphany. There is no mention of the three gifts symbolizing kingship, deity, and death, the guiding star or Jesus. Nor does he portray the travelers as magi ecstatic to have found the messiah after a long, arduous and perilous journey.
Despite putting the historical events on the back burner, ironically, Eliot fully immerses his readers into the true meaning of the Epiphany, a Greek word that means a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization, and for Christians, the manifestation of Christ.
What Eliot does is create a metaphorical poem, representing both birth and death, renewal and spiritual rebirth to highlight the process, the inner and outer journeys that we need to undertake if we want to experience spiritual rebirth. The theme of change demands the death of the ‘old dispensation’ to generate the birth of the new one. Hard and chilling, the process of renewal is clearly not for the faint-hearted and Eliot uncannily posits the impact of a spiritual awakening on both the individual and society so that the journey is both one of the individual and collective psyche through history that goes beyond embracing Christian beliefs.
Being a dramatic monologue, Eliot builds on the structure’s thrilling power by uncannily interweaving the voice of one of the magi as the pilgrim who narrates his own psycho-spiritual journey with that of an esoteric, religious teacher. The impact of this journey leaves the narrator reeling in the shock waves of a life that is forever changed, a life that leaves him alienated from all those around him.
Almost a century on, feelings of alienation and angst are even more relevant. How many of us are seeking a spiritual light? How many of us are willing to admit that there is a greater being that puts our megalomaniac narcissism to shame? How many of us give a thought to the thee kings whose whims must have been commands and yet bow and kneel in all humility as they offer their gifts to an utterly destitute baby? How many of us ponder on what they truly felt as they gazed upon that nativity scene which changed their lives forever by experiencing something extraordinary when looking upon the ordinary?
Above all, what does it actually take to experience an epiphany that brings about a spiritual awakening?