Epiphany, 2017

The astonishing reliquary of the three kings at Cologne cathedral is worth the journey.

Shrine of the Three Kings

Today is the day the wise men greeted the infant Christ.
The story of three wise men who set aside their power and pomp to accept the simplicity of the infant Christ’s new promise never fails to move me.

“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

—From Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. Quoted by Rowan Williams in his first Christmas Day meditation as Archbishop of Canterbury, 2002.

Waugh understood that complicated, clever minds have a hard time finding their way to the God of love, who must be approached as a child. And when they do, they find a welcome they could never have anticipated.

We forget, in the familiarity of the story, that the Epiphany is about a shocking, unexpected meeting.

The wise men knew that a new king had been born. They knew his fate included death, and brought bitter myrrh for his embalming.

But they were not prepared for what they found.

The wise men brought gifts to suit a king who would be clothed in wealth and earthly glory.

Whose royal corpse would need their help to keep it preserved.

They met Christ.

He lay in a feeding trough for animals, wrapped in a simple swaddling cloth, poor and vulnerable.

They knelt in wonder.

Here’s an old poem I wrote about that strange meeting.


This one was backwards to begin with.

A breech birth, signifying greatness and

Disdain towards it. A star pointing

Its horoscope ahead of the birth.

Herod promises to fund our research.

He seemed kind, though peer review

Has since indicated doubt.

It was all strange. If I had not been there,

I would have said it was too perfect:

The lean-to so compendious,

As if everything had been planned that way.

I tell you, I am used to teasing futures out

Reluctantly, with calipers and logarithmic tables,

But here, attending a family for whom

‘Expecting’ seems a cruel joke,

It all coheres: the herdsmen kneeling

By the beasts, the mother beached

The other side of tears, a father

Watching, slightly sidelined by events.

The drift of laughter from the bar —

Nothing here but the animals, wood,

A touch of blood. The child is wearing

His little shroud of martyr-cloth,

His white birthswathe binding his fate,

In silence, stuck in a coffin-trough

(The cattle had to be shooed off).

He was ready for our gifts.

As if born knowing how a myth

Behaves, he laughed at only one.

Gold dazzled him, he turned away.

The incense stung his nose to run.

Only the sobriety of myrrh, its clay

Box cracking slightly at the base,

Brought a chuckle so out of place

It silenced all us three.

We saw a torment borne with grace,

But had not anticipated glee.

MS, 2005

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Filed under Art, Christmas, Religion

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