Epiphany Now and Then

December 12, 2022 by Kyle Nolan

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. — Matthew 2:10-12 NRSV

Were it not for the title, it would be hard to tell that T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” had anything at all to do with the Epiphany story. There’s no mention of the gifts, the mother, or the child. And, as one of the Magi recalls the scene upon their arrival in Bethlehem, he spares only a single line to describe the scene—“it was (you might say) satisfactory.”

The poet chose to dwell instead on the meaning of the encounter and the change it wrought as they returned to homes they no longer recognized as home:

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.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that the Magi, alerted by a star rising to their west signified the birth of a King, sought him out to pay him homage. Later, having found and worshipped him (as far as we can tell, having exchanged no words with the mother) the text informs us that they went home by another road, never to be heard from again. Yet, Eliot would have us imagine that the Magi were changed, somehow, irrevocably.

Reflecting on “Journey of the Magi,” Rowan Williams highlights the basic question posed by the poem:

What happens when a birth—Jesus's ‘birth', as the poet starts re-discovering Christian faith—changes everything? The bizarre fact is that it can feel as if nothing has really changed, except that you have a sense that no one else has noticed what has happened—because something certainly has. “Birth or death?” A new start that is felt only as the death of all that has been familiar; and yet the world goes on, galloping aimlessly like the old white horse.

According to Williams, Eliot never wanted to present faith as a set of settled answers to unsettling questions, but rather as an “inner shift so deep that you would hardly notice it, giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world.”

Much of the work we do with churches involves teaching and encouraging leaders to tell their church’s story through the individual stories of lives changed as the church pursues its mission. But what if the stories of lives changed are, as Williams and Eliot suggest, both more subtle and more profound than we might imagine? What if in seeking to tell the stories of lives changed by the church, however compelling, we fail to notice the ways that God is working independent of our programs and planning?

As a starting point, we might simply consider that the deliberate, intentional practice of gathering the stories that make up the One Story is no less important than telling them. In this light, the purpose is not just to have the stories, but to hear them; to attune ourselves to all the still, small ways that Epiphany not only happened but happens still.

Rev. Kyle Nolan is a Ministry Relations Officer serving the Upper Midwest region, which includes North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. He works with congregations to create a culture of generosity, offers seminars and workshops, develops gifts and fundraising plans for ministries, and provides coaching to finance, stewardship and endowment committees. He previously served as Associate Ministry Relations Officer at the Foundation. You can reach Kyle at kyle.nolan@presbyterianfoundation.org.